2021 NFL Betting Preview: Win Total Picks for 8 Sleepers, Including the Broncos & Falcons
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images. Pictured: Courtland Sutton #14, Teddy Bridgewater #5 and Tim Patrick #81 of the Denver Broncos.
It's time to kick off the 2021 NFL season, so let's continue our season preview.
Every year as we head into the season, I separate all 32 teams into four buckets of exactly eight teams. Eight get labeled as Super Bowl contenders. Eight others are stuck at the bottom, fighting for the No. 1 draft pick.
The more interesting teams are the 16 in the middle. None are true contenders for the throne, but it's all about trajectory. Yesterday we looked at eight teams trending down, set to disappoint in 2021. Today it's the fun half of the equation: this year's sleepers headed in the right direction, ready to surprise.
Remember, this is NOT a power rankings. That's important today, since some of these teams trending up will still finish worse than a few teams headed in the wrong direction.
You might also notice something many of today's sleepers have in common: elite defense and/or great coaching. Turns out that's a pretty good way to overachieve.
We'll go through today's teams in increasing Vegas win total order, previewing each team and choosing whether to pass, lean, or play the over/under. Along the way you'll find offensive and defensive unit ranks for each team, plus other bets worth considering.
Check out the entire four-part season preview:
- The 8 Worst Teams
- The 8 Teams Taking a Step Backward
- The 8 Sleepers Trending Up
- The 8 Super Bowl Contenders
NOTE: Team totals in headings are from DraftKings, with each pick recommendation listing the book with the best available line as of writing.
Jets Over/Under 6.5 Wins
Just getting out of the bottom eight and into "trending up" bucket is already a monster win for the New York Jets.
The Jets do not have a wildly talented roster — as you can see with the offensive and defensive unit rankings, I have the Jets bottom-six on both sides of the ball on paper.
New York has the worst pass rush/cornerbacks combo in the entire league, and that's never a good thing in a passing league. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson is raw and unproven and, while the offensive line is improving, there's not much run game to speak of yet.
Still, the Jets should be one of the league's most improved teams. They're taking a pretty significant step forward at quarterback, receiver, and offensive line. They're also making a potentially massive coaching leap. This is a bet on head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur as much as anything else, and one against the departed Adam Gase.
Saleh did wonders with a dearth of talent due to constant injuries in San Francisco, and LaFleur brings the Kyle Shanahan offense and has already shown how he's making things easy on Wilson and getting the ball into the hands of Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, and the playmakers.
Maybe this is a year early, but it's hard not to improve when you went 2-14 a year ago. The AFC East might be softer than it looks (especially after Buffalo), and the Jets have a light schedule. You can bet on the Bills and Jets to go 1-2 in the division in that order, +1800 at BetMGM if you believe.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
Panthers Over/Under 7.5 Wins
The Panthers are getting a lot of sharp money on the over, and Carolina could benefit from a division where both Atlanta and New Orleans are in transition mode for the season.
Carolina has more talent than you'd think. Christian McCaffrey is back on offense, and D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson are a nifty wide receiver combo. Brian Burns is a star in the making on defense. He's been a trendy sleeper pick for Defensive Player of the Year, and that seems a bit lofty, but both units here are trending in the right direction.
It's easier to believe in the defense than the offense. A.J. Bouye and rookie Jaycee Horn should improve the secondary, especially with a fierce pass rush, but the offense is still very dependent on a poor offensive line and a quarterback in Sam Darnold who might be on his last chance.
Matt Rhule and Joe Brady have done wonders with offense at every step, but at the end of the day, a bet on Carolina is a bet on Darnold. I'm not willing to go all-in on Sam, but it does seem like this team should be feisty.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
Falcons Over/Under 7.5 Wins
It feels like the books have listed both Carolina and Atlanta at 7.5 and shrugged their collective shoulders, asking bettors to figure out which team takes the step forward. I'm more confident riding with the Falcons.
Atlanta was so much better than a 4-12 team last year. They deserved 7.5 wins by Pythagorean expectation, nearly twice as many as they got, and they blew six wins last season when they had at least an 80% win expectancy.
That included back-to-back losses despite a 99% win probability in the fourth quarter against Dallas and Chicago in Weeks 2 and 3, blown second-half leads against both Super Bowl teams, and that Detroit game when Todd Gurley accidentally fell into the endzone instead of running down the clock.
The Falcons played the league's toughest schedule last year, but that evens out this year. Atlanta plays four games against a consensus top-15 quarterback, with the fifth toughest QB opponent probably Jimmy Garoppolo or Jared Goff. That matters even more for the Falcons since they're typically quite stout against the run with Grady Jarrett but poor in pass defense.
Atlanta also went an ugly 1-8 in one-score games last year. History tells us that number is mostly random, so that basically accounts for the awful 4-12 record for what was more like a forgettable 8-8 squad. And while a few big names like Julio Jones, Todd Gurley, and Keanu Neal are now gone, those guys were mostly injured and missing last year anyway.
The biggest addition comes on the sidelines. Arthur Smith worked wonders running the Titans offense the last few years, so he could elevate this offense, while Dean Pees has come out of retirement to lead the defense. Smith and Pees should get the most out of this team, even if it's a roster in transition.
We've seen a team go worst-to-first in its division in 16 of the last 18 seasons. The Falcons are a prime contender at +850 at FanDuel, but it's tough to bet on them passing the loaded Bucs. If you think Tampa has the NFC South wrapped but Atlanta finishes second, you can bet on that combo at 500 at DraftKings.
Win Total Verdict: Play Over 7.5 (-110) at DraftKings
Washington Over/Under 8 Wins
It's not common for a division winner to end up in this bucket of eight, but it's not particularly common for a 7-9 team to win its division. Washington might actually be a positive regression candidate. The Football Team underperformed its win expectation last year and there are real reasons to believe the team should be better in 2021.
An already awesome defense adds a top-10 cornerback in William Jackson, the the defensive line might already be the best in the NFL. Chase Young looks like a future Defensive Player of the Year, and the future may not be far away. Washington's defense could be downright nasty with that filthy pass rush.
The offense is where the real positive regression could come. Washington ranked dead last in Offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders, and that means that even improving to below average or bad is still pretty significant. Trading in last year's pu pu platter of quarterbacks for Ryan Fitzpatrick is a great place to start. Fitzmagic loves to chuck it deep and should pair well with Scotty Turner's aggressive offense, and Terry McLaurin could be in for a breakout year.
The one thing that's tough to love about this team, though, is the brutal upcoming schedule. Winning the division means getting a first-place schedule this year. Each NFL team plays three variable games against opponents no one else the division faces. Washington's three variable opponents mean added games against Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Josh Allen. Woof. Hope that home playoff loss last year was worth it.
Washington also has to play against Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. They're the only team in the NFL to face even four of those five elite quarterbacks. Of course, the soft part of the schedule comes from six games against the NFC East.
Washington is +190 to go over 3.5 division wins at FanDuel. That's a good way to play the Football Team against a controlled weak slate, even if you're not sure about the overall product.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
Broncos Over/Under 8.5 Wins
The case for the Denver Broncos starts and ends on defense.
The Broncos D could be devastating if everyone stays healthy. Von Miller finally looks healthy again, and he and Bradley Chubb can be the best edge-rushing duo in the league. They're paired with the best secondary in the league. Kyle Fuller and rookie Patrick Surtain are huge new additions at corner, and Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are the league's best safety combo.
Vic Fangio is still the best defensive mind in the NFL not named Belichick, and this defense is so reminiscent of many of those elite Bears defenses Fangio led over the past decade. And if Denver's defense is truly that good, the offense really just needs to take care of the ball and not screw things up.
That's why the decision to start Teddy Bridgewater was so important. He was born for this game manager role, handing off to ferocious rookie RB Javonte Williams and getting the ball out quickly to Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, and Noah Fant so they can do the rest.
We've seen so many successful versions of this team: an elite defense with a competent offense. Denver was hurt more by turnovers than any team last year and also faced a very difficult schedule and a litany of injuries.
The schedule this year breaks Denver's way. ESPN's FPI ranks Denver's schedule easiest of any team, and the Broncos face eight games against teams in the bottom-10: the Giants, Jaguars, Jets, Eagles, Lions, Bengals, and Raiders (x2).
Add it all up and Denver could seriously surprise. The great defense could give them a shot in almost any game — maybe even against the Chiefs. Don't laugh. Kansas City is vulnerable, and this mighty pass defense matches up well.
In fact, the Broncos could beat the Chiefs at more than one game. At +900 on FanDuel to win the AFC West, Denver is my pick as the best bet to go worst-to-first and win its division this year.
Win Total Verdict: Play Over 8.5 (-120) at FanDuel
Chargers Over/Under 9 Wins
The Chargers are so easy to love every preseason, but it feels like it never works out. This year, finally, things might be different. There's so much low-hanging fruit on this team, so many easy ways for them to improve in significant, franchise-changing ways.
The first is on the offensive line. The Chargers ranked near the bottom of the league in blocking last year but replace four of five starters, adding stud C Corey Linsley and rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater. The Chargers rank 12th in my offensive line rankings and look poised to make a leap. They could improve similarly to how the Browns did last year, and look how that turned out.
The coaching change should be massive too. Anthony Lynn and Gus Bradley did not get the job done last year, and Lynn is an especially bad game manager. Remember all those times the Chargers screwed up clock management or yet another two-minute drill? Those decision makers are gone now, replaced by defensive whiz Brandon Staley and longtime Saints offensive guru Joe Lombardi.
Lombardi is a perfect fit with this roster. He's worked with Drew Brees for a decade and should be the perfect mentor to sophomore stud QB Justin Herbert. He also knows exactly how to use a versatile pass-catching back like Austin Ekeler, who looks poised for a monster year in a role similar to Alvin Kamara's in New Orleans. And Staley could do some super creative things with Derwin James and Joey Bosa if they stay healthy.
Even the special teams could be huge. The Chargers ranked dead last in Special Teams DVOA the last two seasons. They were historically bad last year, near the bottom of the league in every special teams category. That coach has been replaced too, and special teams play tends to regress to the mean. More low-hanging fruit to easily improve upon.
Blocking, coaching, and special teams may not be sexy, but those areas could be worth a win or two each to the Chargers, and that adds up in a hurry. Add in a softer schedule and, hopefully, some injury luck, plus a potential sophomore leap from Herbert, and the Chargers have serious sleeper potential.
It's a brutal opening six-game schedule, but LA is a team that could figure things out and make a late run. They have a super easy final six games and look like a team you should look to play in season once they settle in.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
Patriots Over/Under 9 Wins
No team suffered greater COVID losses last season than the New England Patriots. They get a ton of key names back this season, and they also spent big in a rare offseason splurge, adding a slew of talent. Matt Judon and Trent Brown were outstanding additions, and Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were splash additions at tight end.
When you think about Bill Belichick's greatness, you probably think first of defense. But Belichick is also gets consistently elite play from his offensive line and his special teams. His special teams have ranked in the top half of the NFL every single season in New England, astonish really, and they've been in the top quarter of the league in 12 of the last 15 seasons. The line has ranked top-10 in run blocking a whopping 14 straight seasons, per Football Outsiders.
Last year, this team cratered with a distinct lack of depth, and the pass blocking and run defense were shockingly bad for a Belichick team. Both of those areas should be much better this year, and that combination of O-line, defense, and coaching give this team a high floor.
The question is how far this offense can get with Mac Jones. Cam Newton is gone, and Tom Brady wears orange now, so this is the Mac show. Belichick is betting big on the rookie, and he won't have many weapons to work with on offense. Josh McDaniels has led five offenses without Brady in his career and finished above average only once. Not great.
This feels like a team that should take a step in the right direction, but one that may not have a huge ceiling unless Mac Jones brings his Heisman play directly to the NFL. It's time to see if Belichick's greatness applies to quarterbacks too.
Win Total Verdict: Lean Under 9 (+110) at DraftKings
Vikings Over/Under 9 Wins
At least on paper, the Vikings have the profile of a sleeping giant.
Minnesota has two outstanding receivers in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and one of the league's best backs in Dalvin Cook. Kirk Cousins ranks higher in just about every QB efficiency metric than you think, and that makes this a good, balanced attack.
The defense got hammered by injury luck last year but looks set to bounce back in a serious way. Danielle Hunter returns to rush the passer, and the run D should be far better up front with Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson.
Minnesota also brought in Patrick Peterson, Breshaud Breeland, and Mackensie Alexander at corner. Mike Zimmer has always been a terrific defensive mind. Last year was the first time Minnesota finished outside the top-seven in Defensive DVOA in five years. They should be back this year.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem on offense is still a question mark, and that's the offensive line. Minnesota's key draft additions haven't even hit the field yet, and a shaky line combined with Cousins' inability to perform under pressure could doom this offense if the Vikings don't figure things out.
Still, this is a balanced team that projects as a top-12 team on both run and pass defense as well as both rushing and passing attack. It's entirely possible the only other team to rank top-12 in all four areas is the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. Seems good.
Even so, it feels like a lot could go wrong. The offensive line remains a problem, and the injury bug could hit again, especially since Minnesota is reportedly the least vaccinated team in the league by a wide margin. That's a dangerous variable in an unpredictable season.
Minnesota has a soft schedule to start the year but needs to win now. They face the Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers, Packers, and 49ers in a brutal second-half month stretch. This feels like a team that could surprise if everything goes right but one where the bottom could really fall out if things collapse.
Win Total Verdict: Lean Over 9.5 (+110) at DraftKings