You can beat the NFL draft.
Please pay particular attention to the third word in that previous sentence, because I didn’t say you can “bet” the NFL draft — just about anybody can do that. I said you can “beat” the NFL draft, as in make money wagering on the National Football League’s annual job fair.
This is no doubt an intriguing assertion to ponder because you are most likely not a professional bettor, which means turning a profit over a significant period of time is extremely unlikely. Over a large enough sample size, only a select few people in the world are capable of beating incredibly tight markets like the NFL. Between the juice and the attention paid to the lines and injuries by the bookmakers, only the sharpest of the sharp find themselves in the black over three-, five- and 10-year periods when wagering on professional football.
The NFL draft, however, is a different beast entirely.
The ominous warning, “Any given Sunday,” exists for a reason. It exists because Urban Meyer’s 1-6 Jacksonville Jaguars upset the Buffalo Bills 9-6 last season despite closing as 14.5-point underdogs. It exists because the Cincinnati Bengals, who opened the 2021 campaign 75-1 to win the AFC, went on and — wait for it — won the AFC. No matter how good your information, no matter how strong your handicapping, every National Football League side and total is more than capable of making the transition from betting slip to low-grade toilet paper.
Perhaps this might come as a surprise to you, but that’s not the case with the NFL draft.
Here’s an obvious example: Last spring it was a 100 percent stone-cold lock that Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was headed to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the first overall pick. Everybody knew it. And guess what? You were allowed to wager whether or not that would happen! Sure, you had to risk a lot in order to win just a little, but the point remains: A genuine, bona fide sure thing was actually on the board.
You’ve dreamt of getting your hands on Grays Sports Almanac like Biff Tanner? Welcome to “Back to the Future Part II.”
Here are some tips and tricks for how to navigate the first round of Thursday’s NFL draft. Notice I said “Thursday.” “Any given Sunday” doesn’t apply here.
Listen to the insiders
Approximately two hours before the commencement of the 2013 NFL draft, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter appeared on SportsCenter live from New York City to update the audience on what he was hearing. Buried near the end of his report was a note that West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin would not fall past the ninth pick, which belonged to the New York Jets.
Alarm bells immediately started ringing in my brain. The over/under proposition for Austin was 12.5, with under bets cashing if the pass-catcher was selected prior to the 13th pick in the draft (over bets would pay if Austin went 13th or later). I immediately called a friend who had access to multiple sportsbook accounts and relayed the intel. He was tentative at first about placing a sizable wager on the information because the juice on under 12.5 was in the neighborhood of -250 at the time of our conversation. For perspective, that means we needed to risk $2,500 if we wanted to make $1,000 in profit.
I explained that we were talking about Adam Schefter, a longtime insider who wasn’t going on air to throw poop against the wall. If Schefter said it was happening, it was happening.
Just over two hours later, Austin was drafted eighth overall by the St. Louis Rams.
This doesn’t mean every report from every reporter contains actionable information. Don’t get caught up trying to find bets where none exist. Instead, do something that is so, so rare in this day and age: listen. The day before the start of the first round and the day of the first round provide a deluge of potentially actionable intelligence. All you’re looking for is one or two golden nuggets.
Study team needs and mock drafts
This is an obvious one, but one I need to mention nonetheless because it led to a big score you’ll read about in the next section. Bottom line: Familiarize yourself with the top two or three needs for all 32 teams and then comb through some mock drafts to get an idea of which players could satisfy those needs. For example, the Detroit Lions selected Oregon OT Penei Sewell with the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft to pair with 2016 first-round pick Taylor Decker (OT, Ohio State), who is under contract through the 2024 season. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that the Lions would target North Carolina State OT Ikem Ekwonu or Alabama OT Evan Neal with the second overall choice.
A big warning: Mock drafts are to be studied, not banked upon. A great mock draft might nail 10 of the 32 first-round picks. You merely want to utilize mock drafts as a supplemental piece of research to gain an understanding of which players are viewed as the cream of their respective crop.
That is, of course, unless mock draft legend Rick Gosselin, formerly of The Dallas Morning News, decides to emerge from mock draft retirement and grace us with his insights. Nobody, and I mean nobody, did it better than Rick, who was the only person in the business who mocked Washington quarterback Jake Locker to the Tennessee Titans at No. 8 in 2011.
Connect the dots
The evening before the start of the 2011 NFL draft, then-Denver Broncos general manager John Elway told reporters that his team intended to select Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller with the second overall selection and that any clubs interested in trading up for the pick should get on the phone.
This statement created an incredibly profitable betting opportunity if you were able to connect the dots and predict the ripple effect from Denver’s intended course of action.
O-linemen in 1st round: under 7.5 (-200)
Ikem Ekwonu is 1st O-lineman drafted (-200)
George Karlaftis over 21.5 (-140)
Dax Hill under 28.5 (-120)
Malik Willis over 9.5 (-200)
Kenny Pickett over 12.5 (-175)
Carolina drafts defensive lineman (15-1) with 1st pick (DK)
Carolina drafts defensive back (14-1) with 1st pick (DK)
Let’s start with what people were thinking prior to Elway’s comments. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was Carolina’s target with the first overall pick, a sentiment that wasn’t in doubt in the week leading up to the big day. Therefore, the draft began at pick No. 2, where the prevailing opinion was that Denver would select Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus before the Buffalo Bills nabbed Miller at No. 3. After all, both teams were in serious need of help along their respective defensive front sevens.
Elway’s comments flipped that narrative and, thus, the odds on which player would go second overall. Those comments also opened a window of approximately one to two hours in which the bookmakers failed to make the necessary corrections. While Miller to the Broncos at No. 2 was quickly installed as the betting favorite, Dareus to Buffalo at No. 3 was shockingly priced at 8-1. For those unfamiliar with the conversions, 8-1 essentially implies an 11.1% chance of a specific event occurring. Given the research that was put into both team needs and mock drafts prior to the draft, there was a significantly better chance than 11.1% of Dareus landing in Buffalo now that Miller was headed to Denver.
The top three picks in the 2013 NFL draft?
1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
2. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
3. Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills
The takeaway here is that a very specific piece of information might have broader ramifications, and it is within these broader ramifications where winning bets can be unearthed.
A bet worth considering
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What kind of betting column would this be if it didn’t contain at least one wager worth considering — am I right?
I’d strongly recommend a look at the following: Total Pac-12 players selected in the first round: 4 (Over -125, Under -110).
The way I see it, Oregon pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, USC wide receiver Drake London, Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie and Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd are all headed for the first round, giving us a push in the worst-case scenario. Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon is the X factor. Some like him in the first; others project him in the second.
Feels like a freeroll to me.