NFL 2021 Betting Preview: Best Bets, Longshots to Lead the League in Passing Touchdowns
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Pictured: Matt Ryan
Who will lead the NFL in passing touchdowns in 2021?
Aaron Rodgers led the league last season with 48 TDs, exactly three per game. It was the second time that Rodgers has been TD king and was 12 more than Lamar Jackson posted when he led the circuit with 36 touchdown passes in 2019. Jackson's total obviously seems a bit unimpressive compared to what we saw from Rodgers in 2020, but it was actually the sixth time in 13 seasons with a TD winner topping out at 36 or below.
Passing touchdowns can be random. A quarterback's career touchdown rate — TDs per passing attempt (TD%) — is relatively stable over time, but it's normal for season-long, mostly random spikes to occur. Take Rodgers for example. He entered 2020 with a career 6.0 TD% but spiked to a career-high 9.1%, a 51% increase. Turns out that's a pretty good way to leap from 26 to 48 TDs.
There's no real way to predict random outliers, but we can use passing attempts and TD% to dig into the numbers and see which players are due an uptick in 2021. There's only one season leader, of course, so we'll have to imagine a player's best outcome and how likely he is to get there. There's no way to guess those TD% spikes, but that randomness also means a better chance at a longshot.
We'll consider the favorite first, then run through other names of note. We'll start by ruling out some names that can't win or who can but aren't worth betting at their number, then take a look at a few intriguing long shots and playable picks before settling into our Passing Touchdowns best bets.
Be sure to check out the other season leader bets if you haven't already:
Note: I've included the best odds available for each player at either DraftKings, FanDuel, or BetMGM at the time of publishing on August 30.
Sizing Up the Favorite
Patrick Mahomes (+350 BetMGM)
With season-leader props, you always have to start by making a decision on the favorite, since they're typically at +500 or shorter. If you like the favorite, they're probably your only play; if you bet anyone else, you're also betting against the favorite.
Patrick Mahomes had 50 TDs his first year as a starter, but he has only 64 in two seasons combined since. That first year was an absurd 8.6% TD rate, and even for someone as talented as Mahomes, it was unsustainable. He's regressed to a still awesome 6.0% the last two years.
Mahomes also doesn't pass quite as often as you might think. The Chiefs ranked third in pass attempts last year but were fringe top-10 in the Mahomes' first two seasons. That's a difference of about 50 attempts over a full season, and that means an extra three passing TDs. Plus, Mahomes has missed time each of the past two seasons. He had a meaningful injury in both of them, and he's always a threat to sit out late if the Chiefs pile up wins again.
The Chiefs revamped their offensive line, and sophomore RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire should be ready for a bigger role. That could limit the volume some for Mahomes, though this could also go the other direction if the Chiefs defense is bad and Kansas City is forced to win a bunch of shootouts.
If the Chiefs pass around that fringe top-10 number of attempts and Mahomes goes for 6.0 TD%, that would give him 37 TDs. Drop to 5.5 TD% and now we're at 34 TDs; jump to 6.5% and he hits 40. If the Chiefs pass as often as they did a year ago, that TD range might increase to 36-to-44 with 40 the more median outcome. And, of course, this is Mahomes — and Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce — so if he spikes for another 8.0+ TD%, he could get into the mid 50s and threaten the record.
Perhaps you see how unpredictable a science this is now?
Mahomes can obviously win this, but this wide range of outcomes also show that it's probably a fool's errand to bet on a favorite at just +350. The most important takeaway, though, is that there's a pretty good chance our pick is going to need to get to at least 40 TDs, especially now that we play 17 games.
That means we can probably rule a few names out.
Verdict: PASS. Just too volatile a stat to bet on a +350 favorite.
Guys Who Probably Can't Win
Jameis Winston (+4000 BetMGM)
The last time we saw Winston play, he led the NFL in completions, yards, and interceptions with the first 30-30 season (TDs and INTs) in NFL history. He rode the pine in New Orleans last year, but now he's earned the starter role ahead of Taysom Hill.
Arm strength and confidence won't be a problem, but volume might be. The Saints ranked 25th in pass attempts last year and may continue to rely heavily on the run game with Drew Brees retired. Winston's career TD% is nothing special at 4.7, so that plus the lack of volume is a problem. So is the likelihood that he loses some snaps, especially in the red zone, to Hill. Stay away — Winston might be lucky to hit 30 TDs.
Ryan Tannehill (+2600 FanDuel)
Tannehill is another volume problem. The Titans ranked third to last in passing attempts last year, leaning heavily on Derrick Henry and the run game. Tannehill also lost former OC Arthur Smith, and Tannehill has been a pretty mediocre the rest of his career without Smith, so there's reason for concern.
Tannehill leapt to 7.2 TD% under Smith's guidance but was an ugly 4.2% the rest of his career. Tannehill's career-high is 33 TDs. Even with Julio Jones in tow, he just can't get there.
Kirk Cousins (+2500 BetMGM)
More volume problems! The Vikings threw the sixth-fewest passes a year ago, and that was actually 50 more passes than they threw the previous season when the defense was better and the team could protect Kirk Cousins more.
Like Tannehill, Cousins has been efficient with his passes but Kirk also loses his play caller in Gary Kubiak, and he too is lacking the volume to be in play here on a run-centric team.
They Could Win, But the Odds Are Not in Our Favor
Russell Wilson (+900 DraftKings)
Which Wilson will we get this year — the one we watched the first half of last season or the guy who disappeared in the second half? Through eight games, Wilson was putting up MVP numbers with 2,541 yards and 28 TDs. But as defenses adjusted and took away the moonshot longballs to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, those numbers plummeted to just 1,671 yards and 12 TDs over the final eight games.
Wilson's attempts should stay up, especially with new OC Shane Waldron, and he's had at least 31 passing TDs five straight years. He should top 35 but will take a lot to beat last year's 40, and anything beyond that would be a big surprise. His odds should be longer.
Josh Allen (+1000 FanDuel)
Allen made quite a leap last year; the question is how much of it was real and what was noise. Allen jumped from career 6.6 to 7.9 YPA, 3.8 to 6.5 TD%, and 56% to 69% completion percentage. That led to a breakthrough career year with 4,544 yards and 37 TDs, and now everyone's expecting him to repeat the feet. The Bills are super aggressive under OC Brian Daboll, passing more on early downs than any team, and that should give Allen plenty of opportunity.
It wouldn't be shocking to see Allen's YPA and completion rate stay near those leaps, but history tells us the TD% will likely regress since 6.5% is just not a number almost any QB ever has maintained. Even fading back to 5.5% would still be a big step forward from the rest of his career, but it means he probably tops out in the low to mid 30s for TDs.
With Allen, there's always a big game waiting, but he's still too volatile and the price here is far too low to invest.
Dak Prescott (+1500 FanDuel)
Dak Prescott was on pace for absurd numbers through four games last season. Before he got hurt, Prescott was averaging a ridiculous 423 yards and over 50 attempts per game. Those numbers obviously aren't sustainable — but even with that outlandish volume, Prescott had only nine TDs.
Prescott has never had more than 30 passing TDs in the season, and the "passing" is key there. The problem isn't that the Cowboys won't score; it's that they love to run it in, both with Prescott himself and with Ezekiel Elliott. Add in the health risks, both with Dak and his teammates, and this just isn't a smart play, especially at +1500.
Matthew Stafford (+1800 DraftKings)
The volume shouldn't be a problem with Stafford. Jared Goff led the league in passing attempts in 2019, and the Rams still ranked 12th last season, even hiding Goff. You don't pay what Los Angeles did for Matthew Stafford to hide him.
The volume will be there, but the touchdowns might not be. Goff never crossed the 32-TD mark and had a career 4.4 TD% in LA. Stafford is at 4.5% for his career. He's a threat for huge yardage on this team, but he's only ever crossed 32 TDs once too, so this probably isn't the play.
Longshots Worth a Sprinkle
Ben Roethlisberger (+4000 DraftKings)
It looks like Big Ben is washed, and his numbers have fallen off a cliff. But when Roethlisberger is out there, he's been a huge volume guy late in his career. Pittsburgh led the league in passing attempts last season, and Roethlisberger led the league in passing yards his last two fully healthy seasons. He's never led the NFL in TDs though; in fact, he's never even had 35, though the two highest totals of his career came in 2018 and 2020.
Roethlisberger has always been a great TD guy, with a career 5.1 TD% and four straight years at or above 5.0. Pittsburgh's passing game could rebound in a big way with Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool plus new OC Matt Canada setting everything up.
If he stays healthy, Big Ben could push 40 TDs — but that's a big ask at age 39.
Matt Ryan (+2900 FanDuel)
If you need more convincing about the randomness of TD%, Matt Ryan makes a pretty good case. In 12 of Matty Ice's seasons, he's averaged a perfectly reasonable 4.4 TD%. But in 2016, that number leapt to 7.1% out of nowhere, and that plus an outlier YPA helped Ryan put up a career-best 38 TDs and a huge stat line to win MVP.
New Falcons coach Arthur Smith also elevates his quarterback, so it wouldn't be shocking to see another TD% spike from Ryan, but the offense should be more run-centric and that could limit the volume. Julio Jones is gone too, and Kyle Pitts is only a rookie. It feels like high 30s is probably best case scenario.
Playable If You Believe
Aaron Rodgers (+850 FanDuel)
Rodgers had those 48 TDs a year ago, but a funny thing happens after a quarterback puts up one of those monster seasons with a huge outlier TD% — they typically regress all the way back to their career average the following season, sometimes further. It turns out that big outlier season is not a trend or anything new. It's just an outlier.
Returning to his career rate around 6.0% is still pretty awesome, but it's a far cry from 9.1% last year. The Packers are actually one of the league's slower offenses, and they also run the ball a ton. Rodgers and the Pack ranked bottom 10 in passing attempts. They were just insanely efficient in the red zone last year, and Rodgers had an outlier TD spike.
He can obviously win this again, but Rodgers has only topped 40 twice and should end up in that 35-to-40 range again. That puts him in play, but it doesn't make him a great value.
Justin Herbert (+1800 DraftKings)
It's tough to know what to expect from Herbert. That would be true of any young QB, but Herbert's Chargers finished fifth in the NFL in attempts last year and Herbert put up huge rookie numbers that shouldn't necessarily be expected to take another big step up his sophomore season.
But the biggest unknown factor comes with new OC Joe Lombardi, who elevated Drew Brees for years but saw Matt Stafford take a step back during his OC days in Detroit. Lombardi's history suggests a more balanced offense, and that would take volume away from Herbert.
Growth is not linear, and Herbert is learning a new offense with a new line. Herbert should end up somewhere in the 30s but this number is too low to bet the risk and range of outcomes.
Baker Mayfield (+2600 FanDuel)
Mayfield really doesn't look like he should be an option because of a potential volume problem. The Browns ranked 28th in pass attempts last year after all, and Baker averaged only 26.5 att/gm over the first 10 games. But Kevin Stefanski was still learning how to trust his QB, and Cleveland played in a couple of weird, swampy weather games that threw the numbers off.
Over the final six games, Mayfield jumped to 36.8 att/gm. He had 11 TDs and just one pick, and his YPA and other metrics shot through the roof. Cleveland should score a lot this year, and Mayfield's career 5.0 TD% is pretty good. And don't forget, Odell Beckham Jr. might finally be healthy — and OBJ has long been one of the game's absolutely elite touchdown receivers when healthy.
This could go sideways. Beckham could get hurt again, or Baker's volume could drop back down. Heck, the most likely outcome might just be a good season for this offense but too many of the TDs coming from Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the ground behind the league's best line. But if the volume is there and Mayfield breaks out with his best receivers ever and a second year in the system, he could put up a huge line and maybe even break into the low 40s. At +2600, he's an intriguing pick.
Tom Brady (+500 DraftKings)
At the end of the day, there's only one bet for me in the TD category in 2021, and it's the GOAT.
Everything is lined up for Brady to have another historic season. The Bucs return virtually everyone from their Super Bowl title roster, and that means Brady gets to work with the best weapons in the NFL — and maybe ever in his career. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are great, and Antonio Brown is the most overqualified third receiver in history. Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate would be breakout candidates on other teams. Here, they can barely get on the field. Rob Gronkowski is the GOAT tight end, and now Brady gets a great pass-catching back in Gio Bernard too.
Take a look at that list again. It's not just loaded with talent — it's also filled with elite red zone ability. Gronk is one of the greatest red zone threats of all time. Evans has always been a TD beast, averaging one touchdown every 8.7 catches. Brown is an elite route runner and maybe the best receiver of this generation.
And Brady's not too shabby himself. The man has 581 career passing TDs and a career TD% at 5.5, which you probably recognize by now as quite elite. He has 12 seasons with at least 5.0% and five with at least 6.4%, including last year's 6.6%. By now, we know that number probably isn't going to regress. It might even go the other way.
There's another reason to believe. This offense took off over the second half of last season. In Brady's seven final regular season games, Tampa had the No. 1 offense and played at the league's fastest pace, and Brady threw 20 TDs. His pace over those seven games would be over 5400 yards and 49 TDs for a full season. And Tampa's one slight weak spot is its secondary, so Brady might even need to win a few shootouts.
While everyone else on this list is trying desperately to get to 40 TDs, my actual projected outcome for Brady's median season is around 41 TDs. And that's for an average Brady year! A great year could see him push his career-high 50, and he's already led the league in passing TDs four times previously.
Brady has an upside no one else can touch. It's a steep price at +500, so that means we can't add anyone else to our position, but Brady is worth the juice. When it comes to passing touchdowns, it's Tom Terrific and then everybody else.
Passing Touchdowns Verdict
On passing TDs, there can only be one: All-in on Tom Brady +500.