• If you look back at recent rushing leaders, they have one significant trait in common: They all played for good teams. Keeping that in mind, which RBs are smart value bets to lead the NFL in rushing yards?
By Michael Beller
August 13, 2018

If you’re going to make a season-long futures bet, thus letting the sportsbook hold onto your principal all season instead of having it as available liquidity, then you have to get good value. There’s little sense, and even less fun, in betting on the favorite to lead the league in passing, rushing or receiving yards. Find the right value, however, and you’ll have something fun to track all season that just might pay off in the end.

Below are my favorite values from bookmaker William Hill to lead the league in passing yards, rushing yards and receiving yards.

Passing yards

Matthew Stafford +700

Andrew Luck +2500

Getting 7-to-1 odds feels light if you’re betting on one player to lead the league in a statistic, but this season does set up quite well for Stafford. He had one of the most efficient seasons of his career last year, completing 65.7% of his passes for 4,446 yards and a career-high 7.86 yards per attempt. Stafford has thrived in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, playing the cleanest, most consistent football of his career the last three seasons. Cooter took over as Detroit’s offensive coordinator before the eighth game of the 2015 season. Since then, Stafford has completed two-thirds of his pass attempts for 11,169 yards and 7.51 YPA. What’s more, after compiling a 2.8% interception rate with all previous coordinators, just 1.6% of Stafford’s passes have been picked with Cooter calling the shots.

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The Lions play one of the toughest schedules in football, as will be the case for all four NFC North teams. The Vikings and Packers are expected to be two of the best teams in the league, and the Bears no longer look like a pushover. The division matches up with the NFC West and AFC North, meaning brutal matchups with the Rams and Patriots, as well as potentially tough games against the 49ers (road) and Seahawks (home). The Lions take a trip to Dallas and host Carolina to round out their schedule. They’re early underdogs in 10 games while they’re favored in just four. In other words, Stafford could combine the volume of his younger days, when he regularly attempted 600-plus passes, with the efficiency of his veteran seasons. He has never thrown for fewer than 4,200 yards in a full season, and has a pair of go-to receivers in Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. This is a strong play at +700.

Luck’s a solid long shot at 25-to-1 odds, assuming we see enough from him during the preseason to trust the health of his arm. He’s another strong YPA guy, putting up marks of 7.73 and 7.78 in his last two healthy seasons. He has the right mix of high-end talent, a pass-heavy offense, a run game that won’t take up much volume and a defense that could struggle mightily. The one concern, other than his surgically repaired shoulder, is the possible lack of a second reliable pass-catcher. T.Y. Hilton is going to do his thing, but is there anyone else on the Colts roster who could threaten to reach 1,000 yards? Are there two guys other than Hilton capable of combining for, say, 1,500 yards? That, too, could hold Luck back, but that’s part of why we’re getting him at +2500.

Rushing yards

Melvin Gordon +1800

Dalvin Cook +3000

If you look back at recent rushing leaders, they have one significant trait in common: They all played for good teams. You have to go back to 2012 to find a rushing leader who played for a team that didn’t win its division, and that year Adrian Peterson’s Minnesota Vikings still won 10 games and went to the playoffs. The last player to lead the league in rushing who played for a team that didn’t make the playoffs was Maurice Jones-Drew, who ran for 1,606 yards for the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars. If you’re going to be on a player to lead the league in rushing, you need to pick a workhorse back on a team expected to contend for the playoffs and win its division.

Let’s start with Gordon, whose Chargers are favored to win the AFC West. Gordon has improved every year of his career, running for 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The issue, however, is that he hasn’t been very efficient. He has picked up 3.8 yards per carry in his career, and even last year registered 3.89 on an average tote.

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This hasn’t been entirely Gordon’s fault, though. He has spent most of his career running behind bad or injured, and sometimes both, offensive lines. Last year, it was right tackle Joe Barksdale who missed five games due to injury. The Chargers line ranked 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, which essentially means that Gordon had little time or room to operate before the first defender hit him. The team addressed this weakness in the offseason by signing Mike Pouncey to be its new starting center, giving some much-needed help to an interior line that struggled mightily last year. With Russell Okung anchoring the left side of the line, and Barksdale back healthy, this should be the best line Gordon has run behind in his career.

Gordon solidified his workhorse status last season, and he has little competition in the running back room. Austin Ekeler is a decent pass-catcher and change-of-pace back, but it’s hard to see him getting more than a couple carries per game. The team drafted Justin Jackson out of Northwestern, but he seems more like insurance against a possible Gordon injury than anything else. Assuming the positive game script that typically goes along with a team that’s the early favorite in 10 of its games, Gordon should surpass 300 carries for the first time in his career.

Dalvin Cook may not be looking at such long odds if he didn’t tear his ACL last October. The rookie was on his way to a monster campaign, racking up 354 yards on 74 carries before blowing out his knee in the middle of Minnesota’s Week 4 loss to the Lions. He was 100% by the start of training camp, officially putting the injury in his rear-view mirror. Given his age and the modern success rate in recovering from ACL surgery, there’s no reason to expect Cook’s knee to give him trouble this year.

Cook was on pace for about 305 carries last season, a number he should approach or surpass this year. He’ll have to deal with Latavius Murray behind him, and while that could curb his touchdown upside a bit, it shouldn’t have much, if any, impact on his yardage total. Cook also showed the explosion typical of a league-leading rusher, with four of his 74 carries, or 5.4%, going for at least 20 yards. By comparison, Kareem Hunt led the league with 12 20-yard carries last year, and that represented 4.4% of his total rushes.

The Vikings are slight favorites over the Packers to win the NFC North, and are the early favorite in 11 of their games. Cook should have plenty of positive game scripts as a tailwind. All of this adds up to make him a very attractive bet at +3000 to lead the league in rushing.

Receiving yards

Odell Beckham +700

Davante Adams +2500

I’m in on another 7-to-1 play, but this time it’s because of the overwhelming force of the player in question. As gamblers, we like to have numbers and empirical evidence to back up every single play we make. Anecdotally, though, we know that things happen that don’t always have a foundation rooted purely in statistics and monster seasons, by their very nature, are outliers. Odell Beckham is the sort of player who seems almost predestined to have at least one of those outlier seasons in his career. You’re going to want to reserve your seat on the bandwagon before it begins.

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Of course, there are plenty of hard numbers backing Beckham as the league leader in receiving yards, too. He has 4,424 yards in 47 career games, good for 94.1 yards per game. Over a 16-game season, that comes out to 1,506.04 yards. By comparison, Julio Jones has averaged 95.3 yards per game in his career, while Antonio Brown, isolating for the portion of his career during which he has made himself into one of the five best receivers of all-time, has put up 101.9 yards per game. Jones and Brown deserve to be considered the favorites, but Beckham, at 25 years old, is just about ready to take the torch.

Unlike Jones and Brown, Beckham may play for a team going nowhere this season. None of the three will hurt for targets, but Beckham’s Giants will almost certainly find themselves in negative game scripts more often than Jones’s Falcons or Brown’s Steelers. Beckham has averaged 10.6 targets per game in his career, compared with 9.7 for Jones and, again isolating for his elite years, 11.1 for Brown. Given team context, however, there’s good reason to bet on Beckham leading the three in targets.

Beckham, Jones and Brown are the clear favorites to lead the league in receiving yards, with an obvious dip before you get to players like DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen and A.J. Green. Beckham’s continued ascendance, combined with the better price you get on him against Jones and Brown, makes him the best play among the top options.

Davante Adams, however, is the down-ticket play. Doug Baldwin would have been interesting, but the news that he could miss all of the preseason with a knee injury and that his Week 1 status may already be in doubt, makes him too great a risk. Adams, on the other hand, is in an ideal spot.

Adams has had a couple of strong seasons in a row, particularly in the touchdown department, hitting paydirt 22 times the last two years. He has yet to reach 1,000 yards in a season, though, totaling 997 in 2016 and 885 last year. Two factors that held him back are no longer in play, and that could help him take off this season.

First, Aaron Rodgers missed nine games because of a broken collarbone last year. Adams played well with Brett Hundley under center, but the offense operates on a different, much worse level without Rodgers. Second, Adams has never topped the depth chart in Green Bay with a healthy Rodgers, finishing second on the team in targets to Jordy Nelson in 2016, and third in 2015 behind Randall Cobb and James Jones. Adams will be the go-to receiver for the best quarterback in football for the first time in his career this year, and he’ll do so just as he’s coming into his own in his age-25 season.

In the five games before Rodgers broke his collarbone, Adams had 23 catches on 39 targets for 285 yards and four touchdowns. The quarterback has played a full season in eight of his 10 years as Green Bay’s starter. He has produced six 1,200-yard receivers, with Nelson setting a high watermark of 1,519 yards in 2014. If you’re Rodgers’s No. 1 receiver, 1,200 yards is essentially a floor. The Packers’ team leader in targets in Rodgers’s full seasons has averaged 127.6 looks, and when Rodgers has had a clear No. 1, such as Nelson in 2014 or Donald Driver in 2008, he has regularly looked his way 140-plus times.

With that foundation in place, Adams is set for a full breakout campaign. Randall Cobb is an adept receiver and a capable No. 2, but he’s no threat to Adams’s status as the team’s top receiver. Jimmy Graham may prove to be a valuable red-zone weapon, but his days as a between-the-20s threat are in the past. Adams is a good bet for 140 targets, and when you combine his skill set with Rodgers’s unparalleled greatness, you get an excellent value bet to lead the league in receiving yards at +2500.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)