The NFL season is here.
On Thursday night, the Lions will look to take the next step in their restoration project as they face off with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead.
We at SumerSports have been previewing the league for a few months now, starting with the AFC South – the division with the fewest projected wins in the NFL, and finishing with the AFC North – the one with the most projected wins. There are some places where we differ with the market and public consensus, and we are going to discuss three instances here.
Now, onto three teams that we differ from consensus on: Green Bay, Miami, and Washington.
Green Bay Packers
When we were live at Circa two weeks ago, the number one team that sports bettors were naming as their undervalued team was the Green Bay Packers. The market has largely moved with this consensus, driving their division odds from roughly +500 when they opened to +361 now at Pinnacle. We currently make this number about +230, which still presents a significant discrepancy.
A few things are in order here. First, its likely that Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is underrated. After winning 13 games in each of his first three seasons with the Packers, they fell off in 2022, winning only eight games and failing to reach the playoffs due to a home loss in Week 18 to the Detroit Lions.
LaFleur has been paired with Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback who from 2017 to 2018 was only 17th in the league in Ben Baldwin’s EPA + CPOE composite (min. 250 snaps), trailing players like Alex Smith, Nick Mullens, Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jared Goff. When LaFleur took over in 2019, things did not get all that much better for the four-time MVP, as he ranked 13th in the league in the same statistic (min. 250 attempts).
Something clicked in 2020, though, with Rodgers winning two MVPs and largely adhering to the structure of LaFleur’s offense. For the Packers to go over their current market win total of 7.5 wins (-133 to the over at Pinnacle) in 2023, Jordan Love does not need to be Aaron Rodgers, he just needs to play to the structure of that Green Bay offense and leverage the skills of Christian Watson, Aaron Jones, Luke Musgrave, and a solid offensive line. Add to the mix defensive reversion to the mean, and this team has a chance to make a lot of people look sharp this fall.
Unlike Green Bay, the case for the Dolphins relative to the market is a bear one. Last season saw Mike McDaniel enter the scene with great results. The Phins, despite starting a backup quarterback in four regular season games (along with their one playoff game), were seventh in EPA per play (10th if counting playoffs). Tua Tagovailoa showed the promise of a top-five pick at quarterback, leading the league in passer rating and yards per pass attempt while throwing 25 touchdowns.
Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle averaged an astonishing 5.53 combined yards per route run, ranking first (Hill) and fourth (Waddle) individually among all wide receivers. Tua appears healthy again, and the market – which has them at 9.5 (-126 to the over at Pinnacle) – is buying into them having their fourth-consecutive winning season, even in a division that includes Buffalo (10.5, -177 to the over), New York (9.5, -109), and New England (7.5, +122).
The difficult part about projecting a team in the Dolphins’ circumstances, though, is how fragile the entire enterprise of football is. The offensive line, the secondary, even the receiving corps, are all weak-link systems that require a great deal of health (e.g., luck) to execute on the plans of brilliant minds like McDaniel and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
The Dolphins are already in midseason form when it comes to injuries, losing trade acquisition and force multiplier Jalen Ramsey to a knee injury that will likely keep him out until after Thanksgiving. Terron Armstead also enters the season with another injury. Add to that the uncertainty surrounding defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and his contract, and there are some real concerns heading into Week 1.
We have the Dolphins handicapped as the league’s 10th best team going into the year. Unfortunately, that makes them the seventh-best AFC team, and corresponds to just 8.1 projected wins, which would be their lowest since the 2019 season.
After decades of turmoil and disappointment, football fans in the nation’s capital have something to root for in the Commanders. Their first home game, where they are touchdown favorites against the Arizona Cardinals, was recently announced as a sellout. The league is better when Washington is competitive, and initial returns on the Josh Harris era seem to imply that if they are good, the fans will be there in droves to see it.
Overall optimism about the team notwithstanding, the market does not believe that the Commanders will repeat their 8-8-1 season from a year ago, let alone exceed it. Their market win total is currently 6.5 with them being a +117 underdog to go over that number. It is not hard to see why; veteran quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke were shown the door and replaced by second-year fifth-round pick Sam Howell of North Carolina. Additionally, 2020 first-round pick Chase Young is battling an injury that will likely keep him out for Week 1, and possibly longer. Terry McLaurin, one of the best wide receivers in football, was injured in their preseason game against the Ravens as well.
However, there are some things to be optimistic about with the Commanders. First, Eric Bieniemy comes over from Kansas City to lead the offense. Bieniemy has been one of the highest-rated offensive coordinators by our metrics for some time now and has the chance to call plays in Washington. Jahan Dotson, their first-round pick in 2022, consistently got open a season ago and is poised for a breakout year next to McLaurin. Their defense is led by some very solid players in Jonathan Allen, Kendall Fuller, Daron Payne, and Montez Sweat. They added Emmanuel Forbes in the draft and plan to start him right away.
Our simulations have the Commanders winning 7.2 games and the NFC East 8.2% of the time. While this is something of a rebuilding year for Washington, and there are top-end quarterbacks available in the 2024 Draft in Caleb Williams and Drake Maye, there is a chance they are much more competitive than the market suggests, putting them near contention for a playoff spot in December for the fourth-straight year.