What to consider when betting on NFL preseason games

LAS VEGAS — When the NFL preseason kicks off Thursday, the only action Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might get is a TV interview with a sideline reporter. Roethlisberger is not expected to play much at all in August. 

Even before he suffered a right shoulder strain in practice last week, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was also unlikely to play in the Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio. In a battle of backup quarterbacks, Pittsburgh is a 1.5-point favorite against Dallas, and the total is 33.

The probability is high that the game will be boring, but there will be wagering action, and a lot of it, simply because the NFL is back and the betting public is more than ready for football season.

Believe it or not, several sharp bettors are getting ready to aim and fire, contrary to a common perception that only degenerates and the insane will wager on preseason games.

“I don’t think anybody is crazy for betting it,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “Not at all. I disagree. There are some edges to preseason, and I think there are advantages to playing it.”

For the most part, preseason games are not about analyzing statistics or the star quarterbacks, so forget about Roethlisberger, Prescott, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers and focus elsewhere. This is a different world.

John Harbaugh
John Harbaugh
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When handicapping games in August, angles are far more important than analytics and motivation for coaches is the biggest question mark. Who wants to win and who couldn’t care less?

Winning always means more to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who’s riding a 17-game preseason win streak (15-1-1 ATS) since 2016. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has a 20-5 preseason record.

“The first concern for handicapping the preseason would be the coaches’ approach to the games,” professional handicapper Marc Lawrence said. “It’s always about the way they choose to attack the preseason.”

Saints coach Sean Payton is 7-14 in his past 21 preseason games, yet his cavalier attitude could change this year due to a quarterback duel between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Payton might make his game-plan info transparent.

Chuck Edel, a professional bettor from Las Vegas, said he spends several hours each week during the preseason watching press conferences and reading newspaper stories in a search for insightful quotes about how coaches plan to use their starters and how much emphasis might be put on winning a particular game.

“It’s all about the information because that’s where there’s an advantage,” Edel said. “With a new coach, I could see Urban Meyer playing his cards differently. He’s changing the whole system. I would assume somebody like that is going to play his starters more than a veteran coach.”

Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence
Urban Meyer (left) and Trevor Lawrence
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The Jaguars’ Meyer is one of seven new head coaches in the league. The others are Dan Campbell (Lions), David Culley (Texans), Robert Saleh (Jets), Nick Sirianni (Eagles), Arthur Smith (Falcons) and Brandon Staley (Chargers).

There was no preseason in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this year’s shortened schedule — reduced from four games to three for all teams except the Cowboys and Steelers — could mean veteran quarterbacks will see less playing time than usual. It also could mean the dress-rehearsal game, when the starters routinely play the most and games get closer to what is seen in the regular season, will move to the second week instead of the third or be eliminated completely by some coaches.

“Expect to see backup QBs get plenty of time during the first two weeks,” Lawrence said. “Exposure for starting quarterbacks is less likely, especially with concern for injury, aside from rookie starters or those adapting to a new team and a new playbook.”

It will be intriguing to see how Meyer utilizes quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick in the draft, in August. In theory, Lawrence is competing with Gardner Minshew for the starting job.

The Colts, who lost starter Carson Wentz to a foot injury last week, need to trade for a starter or develop one immediately from a depth chart that includes Jacob Eason, Sam Ehlinger and Brett Hundley.

Sharp money is not fiction in the preseason, but it’s on a relative scale. The wagering limits at a majority of books are around $2,000 for sides and $1,000 for totals, meaning bookmakers are tapping the brakes. If bettors were always losing, the limits would not be so low.

Bettors should monitor line moves — some numbers will run as much as five points based on smart money.

“It’s important all the time, but getting your best number is very important in the preseason,” Avello said.

With backup quarterbacks and reserves fighting for roster spots deciding most games, betting results are sometimes as random as the spin of a roulette wheel. Still, there’s no need to see a psychiatrist because you’re betting the NFL preseason — there are plenty of sharp ways to cash tickets.

“I love preseason,” Edel said. “If the whole year is like preseason, I’d be happy.”

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