One of the most exciting days in NFL betting is nearly here. Not a season opener, or a playoff game, or even the Super Bowl. We're talking about the first round of the NFL Draft, as bettors come out of the woodwork in an attempt to turn intuition and speculation into a profit.
"From a bookmaking perspective, particularly the day of the draft is one of the most intense and fun days of the year, just because of how violently the market moves and how quickly the prices change," explained Jay Croucher, head trader at PointsBet Sportsbook. "You're evaluating one sharp's money against another sharp's money - and often they're both wrong."
Case in point, take last year's betting frenzy around tackle Tristan Wirfs. According to Croucher, "every sharp in America" was betting on the Iowa standout to go early to the New York Giants. Instead, the Giants took another tackle, Andrew Thomas, with the No. 4 pick, and Wirfs fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 13.
This year it's not tackles that have the attention of bettors. It's quarterbacks.
Trevor Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the first pick has been written in stone for months. He's out to -10000 to go No. 1, but those steep odds haven't kept bettors away. PointsBet has received two five-figure bets at that price: one bettor put down $17,962 to win $180, while another wagered $15,548 to win $155. There's been a similar consensus around the New York Jets taking BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (-5000) with the No. 2 pick.
But things get interesting with the San Francisco 49ers at No. 3. When markets opened two months ago, it wasn't a quarterback who was favored to go third - it was Alabama wide receiver Devonta Smith. Another wideout, LSU's Ja'Marr Chase, also had a brief stint as a co-favorite. Then it was Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.
Now the man expected to go at No. 3 is Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, and that's not exactly a promising scenario for the house.
"Mac Jones going (No.) 3 is the worst possible result for us, across all draft markets," Croucher said. "We're in a pretty bad spot there at the moment."
The majority of sharp action on Jones came in two waves at PointsBet: three weeks ago, when Jones was +160 and the top three prospects were tightly bunched, and again last week when Fields was favored at -140 and Jones was listed at +130.
Now Jones is all the way out to -400, with North Dakota State's Trey Lance his closest competition at +220. Fields is a relative longshot at +600.
"Especially in the past 2-3 days, just with all the news that's breaking and Kyle Shanahan's seeming obsession with Mac Jones for whatever reason, he's now created a bit of separation and has become the clear favorite," Croucher said. "We'll be hoping for a Trey Lance April Christmas miracle."
Should that miracle not come to pass, though, the folks at PointsBet are in position to recoup a portion of their losses in a possible tumble for Lance, whose O/U draft position is currently 6.5 with the under a juicy -236.
"We'll be hoping that he drifts," Croucher said. "Hopefully there's a chance, particularly if he gets past the Niners at 3, that he'll drift beyond 6."
Pitts looking solid for No. 4 slot
A consensus has formed around Kyle Pitts likely being the first non-quarterback taken in Thursday's opening round.
A standout tight end at Florida, Pitts is a "clear favorite" to go to the Atlanta Falcons at No. 4 according to Croucher. He's -150 to go in that spot, and his Under 5.5 position is juiced to -275. It's a result that the book can live with, but they'll be sweating a potentially significant loss should things go awry and Pitts hears his name with the No. 3 pick.
"If Kyle Shanahan has a desire to create this ridiculous experiment with Kyle Pitts and George Kittle for the greatest tight end tandem in the history of the universe, then that's pretty much just as bad a result for us as Mac Jones going 3," Croucher said.
Pitts is currently +5000 to be picked third, but it doesn't take much action at that number to build up a large liability. One bettor put $500 on Pitts at that price, meaning he'll make $25,000 if the tight end goes at No. 3.
"I think there is some thought that he's the best non-quarterback in the market, and it's not like Mac Jones is a Peyton Manning-level prospect," Croucher said. "So there's a thought that a team might just go ahead and pick Pitts that has been popular with bettors, but I probably don't think that's going to get over the line."
Bettors fading Devonta Smith
Once expected to go No. 3 overall, the Heisman Trophy winner could be in for a long night in the eyes of bettors.
Driven in part by Smith's combine weigh-in at just 166 pounds, his prospects have tumbled in recent weeks as money poured in on quarterbacks to go high in the draft. Smith's pointsbetting line is set at Over 12.5 and Under 10.5, with bettors winning (or losing) multiples of their stake based on where he ultimately gets selected. Croucher has seen a bevy of action on the Over 12.5 in recent days, with some expecting Smith to fall beyond the halfway point of the first round.
"I guess they see that there's more upside in betting on the over and him drifting to the late teens as opposed to betting Under 10.5 where you'd be a little protected, since he's not going top 5 at this point," he said.
Likewise, PointsBet has seen lopsided wagering in the head-to-head matchup between Smith and his former Alabama teammate, Jaylen Waddle. Waddle is now a hefty -180 favorite to be selected before Smith.
"All of the action has been on Waddle," Croucher said.
'Trust the sharpest money'
The draft is a bit of an unknown for oddsmakers. There aren't box scores or historical data to lean on, as many of the decisions are based on intuition - both by the bettors and those making the actual picks for NFL teams. It creates a situation where markets are more directly shaped by sharp action, with the house less likely to take a position on a particular line.
But there are still a few occasions where oddsmakers are willing to gamble. One such market is the head-to-head matchup between quarterbacks Justin Fields and Trey Lance. Lance has picked up steam in recent days as speculation swirled that he might go No. 3 overall. But Croucher and company remain bullish on Fields and have been pricing the matchup accordingly.
"Our team is just confident that, particularly given that we expect now that Lance is going to get past the Niners at 3, that Fields, just his pedigree as a prospect, we kind of slightly favor him to go before Lance."
The matchup was priced -115 each way as a result - but even intentional positions aren't immune to an avalanche of one-sided action. In the hours after we spoke, bettors flocked to Lance in that particular matchup. As of Wednesday morning he's now a -143 favorite to be picked first, with Fields a +115 underdog.
It's yet another example that pricing the NFL Draft is a bit of a soft science, and one that could create a long but exciting night for both bettors and oddsmakers come Thursday.
"You've got to sift through the information and the mis-information," Croucher said, "and trust the sharpest money that is coming in."
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