News & Analysis

How 2021 NFL free agency impacted the futures market

Jan 3, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. (10) celebrates his touchdown in the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The splashy signings thus far in 2021 NFL free agency have had little impact on the futures markets, as the most improved teams in PFF's index have held the exact same division odds since early March.

Most of the line movement from free agency has been negative, with some teams seemingly missing out on top-end quarterbacks. Let’s take a look at the divisions after some adjustments this week to see if any betting value exists. 

NFC EAST

Team Odds DK Breakeven % Implied Probability Hold %
Cowboys 100 50.00% 45.16% 110.71%
Football Team 300 25.00% 22.58%
Eagles 425 19.05% 17.20%
Giants 500 16.67% 15.05%

Washington adding Ryan Fitzpatrick, Curtis Samuel and William Jackson III has had very little impact on the team's futures, yet all three signings were a surprise to the betting market. DraftKings moved its division odds from +325 to +300 on the news, but FanDuel had Washington already priced at +300 at the beginning of March.

According to PFF's improvement index, Washington added 0.3 WAR based on the three signings and finally have a quarterback capable of leading the team into the playoffs. In total, the Football Team's roster projects to produce slightly better WAR than the Cowboys, but all four NFC East teams are in the bottom-fourth of the league for expected WAR in 2021. If the betting market doesn’t adjust slightly to the Football Team's latest improvement, they look like the clear team to buy in the NFC East.  

Washington Football Team +300 to win the NFC East

AFC SOUTH

Team Odds DK Breakeven % Implied Probability Hold %
Colts -106 51.50% 46.51% 110.74%
Titans 130 43.48% 39.26%
Jaguars 1000 9.09% 8.21%
Texans 1400 6.67% 6.02%

The AFC South could be competing with the NFC East for the worst division in football in 2021. The Colts are odds-on favorites, but they will be starting a quarterback who had the fourth-worst passing grade and second-lowest adjusted completion percentage in the NFL last year. Their defense overperformed in 2020, with some expectation of regression in 2021. They also had the fourth-worst improvement change based on the latest moves for all teams. The betting market is pricing them as favorites, but they sit in the bottom half of the league in our projected WAR for next season. 

If we assume that Deshaun Watson is either traded or refuses to play for the Texans, then this division really comes down to the Titans' performance. Tennessee has taken a step back offensively with the losses of Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis

Arthur Smith’s move to the Falcons also created many concerns for the Titans, who could focus even more on Derrick Henry with Todd Downing’s promotion to offensive coordinator. Mike Vrabel followed the same process when promoting Smith, but history suggests it will be difficult to have that much success once again. If the expectation is that the Titans see regression on offense, then their initial focus on improving the defense could be for naught. 

The AFC South appears wide open in this scenario, and one team could make a significant improvement to at least challenge for the division crown. 

The Jaguars have the fourth-best WAR improvement after their latest roster moves, and they haven’t yet added perhaps the greatest quarterback prospect of the past decade. Urban Meyer could easily be the only thing holding Jacksonville back from the AFC South title, but expect his team to be in contention late into the season. At just over an 8% implied probability, the Jaguars are another longshot I don’t mind taking a flier on early in the offseason. 

Jacksonville Jaguars +1000 to win the AFC South

NFC NORTH

Team Odds DK Breakeven % Implied Probability Hold %
Packers -250 71.40% 64.77% 110.23%
Vikings 400 20.00% 18.14%
Bears 550 15.38% 13.96%
Lions 2800 3.45% 3.13%

The Packers continue to push out as the heavy betting favorite after the Bears failed to significantly improve their quarterback room. Chicago lost over 3% of implied probability after the Andy Dalton signing signaled a lack of movement to trade for Russell Wilson

Most of their breakeven percentage was tacked onto the Vikings, who have added almost 3% to their expectation since I first wrote about them in mid-February. Minnesota may not have a roster capable of competing for the Lombardi Trophy, but with a coaching staff and front office needing to win now at all costs, a quick improvement that keeps the team in the running for the NFC North crown appears to be the most likely path. I can’t suggest them again after already having a better number, but the NFC North is turning into a clear two-horse race.

Green Bay has been questioned constantly about its roster construction and recent draft history, but the majority of simulations still see the team easily walking away with the NFC North crown. The Packers taking a one year flier on a top free agent wide receiver is also becoming more likely by the day.

NFC SOUTH

Team Odds DK Breakeven % Implied Probability Hold %
Buccaneers -134 57.30% 51.98% 110.23%
Saints 250 28.57% 25.92%
Panthers 500 16.67% 15.12%
Falcons 1200 7.69% 6.98%

This is another division included in my writeup from one month ago, but line movement hasn’t been as kind to my previous suggestion. The Saints have dropped as that writeup suggested, and the Panthers have been the biggest beneficiary, according to current division futures. 

Atlanta has lost a half percent in both its breakeven and implied probabilities. Carolina has gained the most value of any team since that initial writeup, with its implied probability improving by over 5% on the move from +850 down to +500. 

Rumors suggest the Panthers are the frontrunners to acquire Deshaun Watson, with their latest futures price somewhat buying into this suggestion. If that scenario plays out, they should move to near-favorites with the Buccaneers. 

The Saints should continue to drop in the futures market, as they aren’t anywhere close to the 25% implied probability to win the division in their current state. Say what you will about Jameis Winston, but Tom Brady took over a roster and won a Super Bowl with almost the exact same makeup that Winston went 7-9 with. The talent around him in New Orleans isn’t close to what he had with the Buccaneers, so expecting him to elevate the play of those around him seems far-fetched, if not completely unlikely. 

If Watson lands somewhere outside the NFC South, then the Falcons have to still offer value at an even better price than last month. They have the seventh-highest projected WAR total for 2021. Given the current uncertainty surrounding the Panthers, the Falcons look like a viable target after the draft shakes out if Watson doesn’t end up in Panther blue. 

PREVIOUS PENDING FUTURES BETS

Minnesota Vikings win the NFC North: +500 2/17/2021 – Currently +400

Atlanta Falcons win the NFC South: +1100 2/17/2021 – Currently +1200

Cincinnati Bengals win the AFC North: +2500 2/17/2021 – Currently +2500

Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl: +6600 2/17/2021 – Currently +6000

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