In June 2018, on the day New Jersey legalized sports betting, I met someone at Monmouth Park Racetrack who did this sort of thing for a living and he explained how the good money was already long spent by then. The more available information, the more refined the odds, the harder it is to nab some kind of inefficiency in the market.
But I wonder how that changes during a year like this, where information is sparse to begin with (and if you’re in Green Bay, somehow illegal). We have less of an idea of how things are going to work. We, theoretically, have less access to the players who can align some of the puzzle pieces for us. So as we run headfirst into a season that will be more mysterious than any since perhaps the post-lockout year, it might be a good time to at least take a look at who the powers that be believe will have a good season.
Below are William Hill futures odds for defensive and offensive rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, MVP and comeback player of the year, along with some thoughts and analysis. If anything, it’s an exercise in how wide open the possibilities are, beyond what is readily expected. At best, good coaching and a strong talent pool overcomes the complete lack of a preseason. At worst, we’re in for a strange outlier unlike anything we’ve seen in years.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Top five candidates: Chase Young, Isaiah Simmons, Patrick Queen, A.J. Epensa, Kenneth Murray
Thoughts: One thing I like about the Defensive Rookie of the Year award is that the category does not discriminate positionally as much as others. The last 10 winners of the award have been, in order: a defensive end, inside linebacker, cornerback, defensive end, cornerback, defensive tackle, defensive tackle, inside linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle and inside linebacker.
Recent victories by Aaron Donald in 2014 and Marshon Lattimore in 2017 reflect the growing willingness of voters to accept advanced statistics, which means that players like Patrick Queen or Isaiah Simmons have a better chance than in years prior because their coverage statistics might be incorporated into their candidacy more heavily. Having Chase Young as an odds-on favorite is safe and it makes sense. Washington’s defensive line is full of capable pocket pushers and pass rushers and reminds me a bit of the pre-Bosa 49ers—a lineup of Young-Jonathan Allen-Darron Payne and Ryan Kerrigan with Montez Sweat as another shift-able pass rushing piece.
Outside-the-box suggestions: Two names come to mind immediately if you’re looking to bet off the board: One is K’Lavon Chaisson from Jacksonville. Why? Say what you will about the Dave Caldwell regime but they’ve done well for themselves at pass rusher. It’s a comfort zone position for the staff there and Chaisson can settle in comfortably opposite Josh Allen with the experienced Timmy Jernigan at defensive tackle. While a DROY candidacy is strengthened by the overall performance of the team, Chaisson has the opportunity to accumulate some outlandish sack numbers opposite Allen, especially if a Yannick Ngakoue trade goes through or he continues to sit out. The other is Ashtyn Davis, the Jets’ third-round pick out of Cal. The award winners typically come from the first and second rounds, but with Jamal Adams being shipped out to Seattle, Davis has an interesting opportunity to accumulate a diverse array of glamour statistics in Gregg Williams’ YOLO defense. Davis can move around and blitz. If his collegiate instinctiveness translates, he could be a fascinating player to watch.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Top five candidates: Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helarie, Tua Tagovailoa, Jonathan Taylor
Thoughts: Joe Burrow is the only quarterback I’m putting on this list with any confidence. I think Justin Herbert will sit a good deal of the 2020 season and Tagovailoa should do the same in Miami. Since 2009, the award has gone receiver, quarterback, quarterback, quarterback, running back, receiver, running back, quarterback, running back, running back and quarterback. Helaire is worth keeping an eye on. His talent was such that it forced Andy Reid to break with a longstanding habit of seeking running back value in the later rounds, which means that the Chiefs’ roster was either so complete otherwise that the move made sense, or Helaire was so good and potentially scheme integrable that he needed to be selected there.
Outside-the-box suggestions: Out of all the first-round wide receivers taken, only the Eagles’ Jalen Reagor and 49ers’ Brandon Aiyuk landed in situations where the schemes run and quarterbacks in place provide any confidence that they can produce a right-away star. For a more enticing bet, I might dig deeper and look at a running back who might ascend the depth chart quickly and be in a position to accumulate some attention-worthy statistics. J.K. Dobbins in Baltimore, Ke'Shawn Vaughn in Tampa Bay, Cam Akers on the Rams and Zack Moss in Buffalo are all worth keeping tabs on.
Defensive Player of the Year
Top five candidates: Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt, Nick Bosa, Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa
Thoughts: If one could somehow arrange for a Member of the Bosa Family vs. the field wager I might be interested. That said, the rest of this list doesn’t entirely blow me away. Mack goes into another year without Vic Fangio, and the sheer incredible nature of what Donald accomplishes on a snap-to-snap basis may have gone stale in the eyes of the voters. Watt may be better suited for Comeback Player of the Year unless rookie Ross Blacklock is an energizing force right away.
Outside-the-box suggestions: Jamal Adams in Seattle is an extremely intriguing possibility. As I’ve said this offseason, the addition of Quinton Dunbar and continued emergence of Shaquill Griffin gives me confidence that this could be the best version of Seattle’s defense we’ve seen since the Legion of Boom began to fall off and break apart in the mid-to-late 2010s. Lavonte David is also worth looking into. The Buccaneers are going to have a larger audience than they’ve enjoyed since the early 2000s, which means that Todd Bowles’s genius has a chance to shine. David had a strong 2019, was a lockdown coverage linebacker who faced more passing situations than all but one other linebacker in football and was also a stout run defender.
Top five candidates: Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott
Thoughts: This is a conventionally sound lineup. The last non-quarterback MVP was Adrian Peterson in 2012 and, before that, a two year stretch in 2005 and 2006 when Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson won the awards. Outside of a few marquee running backs, the position has been so heavily divided among low-cost pieces that it’s difficult to suggest another running back will win in 2020 with any confidence.
Outside-the-box suggestions: Two names immediately come to mind, though the first isn’t necessarily outside-the-box. Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers and returns with a great offensive line and supporting cast. He also evolves another year with head coach Matt LaFleur. He is extraordinarily difficult to count out, despite the idea that he may be on the backside of his career performance curve. But what about Nick Foles? What if Foles wins the job out of camp and limps the Bears into the playoffs as a wild-card contender? The roster is certainly talented enough and Foles has an engrained relationship with Reid disciple Matt Nagy. If the Bears could navigate a difficult division and return to the playoffs, it would be hard to ignore his candidacy given that we have the 2019 season as a comparable sample.
Comeback Player of the Year
Top five candidates: Ben Roethlisberger, Rob Gronkowski, Cam Newton, Alex Smith, J.J. Watt
Thoughts: If Alex Smith starts a game this season and completes an NFL pass, he should win the award hands down, no questions asked. Smith is in the thick of Washington’s QB battle, which is insane and impressive enough on its own. The fact that we may soon see him on the field again is an incredible testament to his personal drive. I can’t imagine another candidacy stacking up next to Smith’s with any credibility if Smith logs some playing time this year.
Outside-the-box suggestions: I’m going to throw Derwin James in here. James missed about 75% of the 2019 season with an injury and by the time he returned, the Chargers were too far out of contention for him to build a campaign. This season, the Chargers are primed to take the league by surprise and, on paper, have one of the best defenses in football. James can be the centerpiece player of that unit.
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