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2017 NFL Divisional Bets: AFC North

By Peter Brooks in Sports
| June 26, 2017 12:00 am PDT
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*This is part 3 of a series. See AFC East here and NFC east here.

With the main thrust of the free agency period concluded, the 2017 NFL Draft in the books, and training camp coming up soon, NFL fans across the nation and across the world are starting to feel the anticipation build for a new NFL season.

But it’s not just anticipation that mounts at this point of the offseason. The uncertainty of free agent movement in February and March is over. The investment in young players (drafted or undrafted) in April and May is over.

This is the part of the year when it comes time to get down to business.

For NFL managers and executives, the major pieces of the team have (mostly) been settled, and it’s time to get down to business filling out the 90-man rosters that will be brought into preseason. For NFL coaches and players, the major schemes and personnel packages have (mostly) been settled, and it’s time to get down to business going through OTAs and rounding into football form.

And for NFL gamblers, teams around the league look (mostly) the way that they will look in September, which means it’s time to get down to business making future bets.

What is a future bet?

For the uninitiated gambler, the term “future bet” can be confusing: Technically speaking, every wager placed on the outcome of a sporting event is a bet on a future outcome. What separates regular bets (such as bets against the spread, moneyline bets, or over/under bets) from future bets is simply the length of time.

Roughly speaking, a future bet is any wager made in which the outcome of the wager will not be determined until a point weeks or months in the future (as opposed to the same day or the same week).

As a rule, future bets are higher risk/higher reward than other types of bets. Future bets are higher risk because the chances of something unforeseen happening are much higher over a longer length of time. And of course, as in any investment, the bets are higher reward because they are higher risk.

For example, an individual thinking about placing a wager on the Patriots’ odds to win the Super Bowl in August of 2016 would have wondered: Will Tom Brady be the same after his suspension? Will his 39-year-old body be able to last another season? That same individual thinking about placing this same wager in February of 2017 would not have asked these same questions: at that point it was evident that Tom Brady was a healthy, elite quarterback.

This is what makes future bets so difficult, and also what makes them so lucrative. There are so many variables that could potentially throw the bet. Only the truly savvy gamblers that have been doing their homework over the course of the offseason are able to make accurate prognostications, and rake in the big payouts when the playoffs roll around.

Well we’ve done our homework, and below we’ll share all the information you need to know in order to make an informed decision on all of the lucrative future bets currently available: total win over/under bets for each team, championship odds, Super Bowl odds, and division winner.

As all expert NFL gamblers know, postseason success in the NFL very often comes down to division success. Winning the division is the only surefire way to make it to the playoffs, and with 6 of the 16 games each year coming against division opponents (not to mention tiebreakers), there’s no way to win the division without beating your division opponents.

Last year, the AFC North was one of the weaker divisions in the league, and was up for grabs until very late in the season. The Pittsburgh Steelers needed to rip off a 6-game winning streak over the last 7 weeks of the season in order to snatch the division title away from the Baltimore Ravens.

In brief, the conventional wisdom on the situation in the AFC North is as follows:

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are the favorite, with the trio of Ben, Bell, and Brown at the helm.
  • The Baltimore Ravens are going the way of the dinosaur, with a GM that’s behind the times.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals are a fringe Wild Card contender at best, falling apart at worst.
  • The Cleveland Browns are the laughingstock of the NFL, and irrelevant every single year.

But in order to go beyond the stereotypes and make a truly informed decision about what each of these AFC North teams will accomplish throughout the course of the 2017/18 NFL season, we need to take a deeper look at each of these four teams individually.

In order to turn a profit for our NFL future bets, we need to take a deep dive and outsmart the mass of uninformed gamblers making blind decisions.

Let’s begin with the Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland Browns Futures Bets

The Cleveland Browns have undoubtedly earned the questionable distinction of “Most Tortured NFL Franchise of the 21st Century.” Heck, one could even put them in the running for the most tortured fan base in all of professional sports.

After dominating the All-America Football Conference around the middle of the 20th century and enjoying storied eras of success with legendary head coach Paul Brown (the team’s namesake) and legendary running back Jim Brown (likely the greatest rusher of all time), the Browns subsequently let their franchise atrophy and ended up relocating to Baltimore, enduring a three-year period with no professional football in Cleveland.

After the franchise was revived in 1999, the recent history of the Browns has revolved around an unfortunate ownership situation. Al Lerner, who brought back the Browns, tragically died only four years later, bequeathing the team to his son Randy. Randy then perpetuated a decade of mediocrity and ultimately turned around and sold the team to a businessman from Tennessee named Jim Haslem.

In turn, Jim Haslem, after enduring a woeful season in 2015/16 (his first season with the team), brought down the hammer, sending out for a new GM (Sashi Brown) and a new head coach (Hue Jackson).

One of the first steps taken by this new leadership regime was to try and give the fan base something to get excited about on the field. To accomplish this, the Browns traded for former #2 overall pick and Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III, who had played out the duration of his rookie contract with the Redskins and was a free agent.

Despite his history with injuries, the Browns hoped to give RGIII a tryout as a potential new franchise quarterback and team leader. Perhaps the managers of the team believed that his bountiful experience overcoming adversity would resonate in the team’s tortured locker room.

Unfortunately, Cleveland was once again cursed by the football gods, as Griffin’s “tryout” only lasted one regular season game before the young quarterback got injured once again. Subsequently, the Browns saw 5 different quarterbacks sustain injuries before RG3 was able to come back from injury in Week 13.

To the credit of the new leadership regime, despite the fact that the Browns finished 1-15 – their worst record in team history – new owner Jimmy Haslem decided to stick with the GM/head coach combination of Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson. Instead of panicking and ushering in yet another painful leadership transition, the team appears to be willing to try and rebuild from the inside out.

In this context, let’s take a look at what the Browns have done this offseason in order to make sure that this coming season is better than last season, and what this means for our AFC North futures bets.

Cleveland Offseason Personnel Moves

One of the unspoken rules of the NFL is that the more exciting a team is during the regular season, the less exciting that team will be during the offseason. Conversely, the less exciting a team is during the regular season, the more exciting that team will be during the offseason.

For the Browns, this means that the upside of having a bad team with almost zero players who are indispensable is that each offseason the team heads into free agency with a massive amount of cap room available for free agent acquisitions. And 2017 was no exception: At the start of the league year, the Browns had an incredible $103 million in cap space, which was the highest amount in the league and well over $50 million above league average.

In this context, the first major move made by the Browns on the first day of free agency was to make a trade with the Houston Texans. In exchange for the Browns’ 4th-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, Cleveland received a 2017 6th-round pick, a 2018 2nd-round pick, and also the behemoth contract of quarterback Brock Osweiler, who was easily the worst starting quarterback in the league in 2016/17.

At the time of the trade, it was easily understandable why the Texans would have been anxious to rid themselves of Osweiler and his contract. However, most people scratched their heads and wondered what the Browns were up to – whether it was part of a larger blockbuster deal with the Cowboys for Tony Romo; whether the Browns would simply release him and take the dead money hit.

As of the time of this writing, however, it seems by all accounts that Brock Osweiler is a legitimate contender for starting quarterback of the Browns.

In addition to the acquisition of Osweiler, the Browns re-signed CB Marcus Burley, LB Jamie Collins, P Britton Colquitt, RB Isaiah Crowell, and DE Jamie Meder. In free agency, the Browns acquired WR Kenny Britt, C Marcus Martin, OT Matt McCants, CB Jason McCourty, FS Tyvis Powell, C J.C. Tretter, WR James Wright, and G Kevin Zeitler.

In addition, the Browns released the following players: OL Alvin Bailey, TE Gary Barnidge, OT Josh Boutte, S Trae Elston, QB Robert Griffin III, CB Tracy Howard, WR Andrew Hawkins, QB Josh McCown, and CB Tramon Williams. The team also saw three players leave in free agency: DE Stephen Paea, FS Jordan Poyer, and WR Terrelle Pryor.

All told, the Browns have many more holes than just one slate of free agent roster movements can plug. But two major storylines did emerge from the Browns’ 2017 free agent movement.

First, the team has made a clean transition at quarterback. Releasing RGIII and Josh McCown and bringing on Brock Osweiler means a new face of veteran leadership in the quarterback position room for the Browns. And with a new quarterback room always comes a new team atmosphere.

Second, and much more importantly, the Browns took a huge step towards actually being able to protect whatever new quarterback they end up going with. Left tackle Joe Thomas is undoubtedly among the top five best players in the entire league over the last decade, so there’s no problem at left tackle. But by bringing in right guard Kevin Zeitler (perhaps the best offensive guard in the league) and center J. C. Tretter (a competent, versatile starter with a lot of upside), the Browns significantly improved the rest of the unit around Joe Thomas.

With a new quarterback and a much-improved offensive line, there’s now legitimate reason to believe that the Browns could be improved on offense in 2017/18 compared to previous years.

Cleveland Draft Review

Much in the same way that being a bad team during the regular season often yields a lot of cap space to utilize in free agency, being a bad team during the regular season also leads directly to higher draft picks, and more draft capital to utilize in trades.

In the case of the Browns, they started the beginning of the league year with 11 draft picks (including the #1 overall pick and the #12 overall pick), and a whopping 5 selections within the first 65 picks. At the end of the draft, after all of the trades and deals, the Browns ended up with the following 10 players:

  • Round 1, #1 Overall: Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
  • Round 1, #25 Overall (trade with Texans): Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
  • Round 1, #29 Overall (trade with Packers): David Njoku, TE, Miami (FL)
  • Round 2, #52 Overall (trade with Titans): DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame
  • Round 3, #65 Overall: Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Charlotte
  • Round 4, #126 Overall (trade with Broncos): Howard Wilson, CB, Houston
  • Round 5, #160 Overall (trade with Jets): Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
  • Round 6, #185 Overall: Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida
  • Round 7, #224 Overall (trade with Jets): Zane Gonzalez, K, Arizona State
  • Round 7, #253 Overall (trade with Broncos): Matthew Dayes, RB, NC State

In evaluating this draft, it’s important to note two things. First, for a team that won only 1 game out of 16, “strategy” goes out the window. The goal for the Browns is not to shore up certain position groups, but rather simply to fill the roster with quality players.

Secondly, it’s also important to look at how the Browns’ picks fell: The team’s first three picks were all inside of the first round. Some teams, like the Green Bay Packers, had zero picks in the first round. The New England Patriots didn’t have a pick until the third round – the 83rd pick overall, at which point the Browns had already selected five players.

The reason we mention this is simply to illustrate the point that the first several picks for the Browns merit very little evaluation – Myles Garrett could easily become a superstar player, and Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku could easily become the best player in the draft at their position. Given that the Browns simply need good players, there’s no reason to overthink any of these three (very solid) selections.

This brings us to the fourth pick for the Browns, quarterback DeShone Kizer. Kizer is currently getting buzz as a potential rookie of the year candidate, with his odds sitting at +1400 (the 9th-best odds of the field). On the one hand, he has the physical talent necessary to take over the starting spot and excel. On the other hand, fans of the Browns must feel that they still haven’t solved the problem of drafting a surefire, decade-long franchise quarterback, despite having several opportunities to try.

In our view, this puts the Browns’ draft exactly where it should be: A rebuilding effort that did not try to solve all of the team’s problems at once, but rather just slowly and steadily tried to build a cadre of quality players. In the end, the Browns’ 2017 draft was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

2017/18 Cleveland Browns Prediction

In summary, for a team that won only 1 game in 2016/17, any roster movement likely would have been seen as an improvement: There’s nowhere to go but up for the Browns.

Even still, the acquisition of Brock Osweiler was initially seen as a strange move, but if the 72-million-dollar-man can bounce back from his terrible season with the Texans and win the starting job in Cleveland, then perhaps the trade won’t look so strange after all. As of now, Osweiler will be competing with 2016 draft picks Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan as well as 2017 2nd-rounder DeShone Kizer for the starting quarterback job.

More importantly, however, is the fact that whichever of these players does end up winning the starting job is likely to have a much better chance of actually surviving for a full season, given the fact that the Browns went to great lengths to shore up their offensive line. With Kevin Zeitler and J. C. Tretter now matched up with the once-in-a-generation talent Joe Thomas, the Browns just might have an offensive line to be proud of this season.

But it’s not just roster movement that has us excited about the opportunity the Browns have to take a step forward in 2017/18. Statistically speaking, even though the Browns won only 1 game last season, according to the advanced sabermetric statistic Pythagorean Expectation (a measure of success based on points scored and points allowed), the Browns should have won 3.5 games last season.

What this means in simple terms is that even though they only won 1 game, the Browns played more like a 3.5-win team, indicating that they should play better in 2017/18 than 2016/17 purely based on statistical luck.

In addition, the Browns had the bad fortune of playing the most difficult schedule in the entire league last season, as if they needed another reason to struggle. Next season, the Browns have the 10th-easiest schedule in the league (based on aggregated win totals for their opponents), meaning that they should have a much easier road this season than they did last year.

Of course, even taking into account all of these different factors, (and adding on a healthy dose of optimism), we definitely don’t recommend taking the Browns’ AFC Championship odds (+10000; tied with the Jets for the lowest in the conference) or their Super Bowl odds (+20000; tied with the 49ers and Jets for the last in league).

However, assuming that the Browns can manage to keep a single quarterback healthy for something like 12 or 14 games and develop some semblance of continuity in scheme and coaching philosophy, we believe that the Browns could definitely improve their win total from last season by four whole games. With a new-and-improved O-line, a consistent leadership presence, a solid draft, and a much easier schedule, the Browns are poised to take a step forward in 2017/18.

Cleveland Browns Season Win Total: Over 4.5 Wins (EVEN); Under 4.5 Wins (-130) – OVER

Cincinnati Bengals Futures Bets

The Cincinnati Bengals headed into the 2016/17 season with a chip on their shoulders: Despite making it to the playoffs five consecutive seasons (seven total during the Marvin Lewis era), the team had not won a playoff game since 1990. After five straight years as a fringe Wild Card Round contender, Bengals fans hoped that 2016/17 would finally be the year when things would click.

Unfortunately, however, as is often the case in “limbo” situations such as the Bengals’, the team is held back not by anything that the players on the field are doing, but rather by the failings of the team’s ownership and management.

In the case of the Bengals, 81-year old owner Mike Brown (son of Paul Brown, legendary coach who founded both the Browns and the Bengals and who serves as namesake for the Bengals’ “Paul Brown Stadium”) has been ineffective as an owner now for nearly three decades.

After a 19-year stretch with Mike Brown as both owner and de facto general manager (during which time the team had zero winning seasons and zero playoff appearances), control over football operations was ceded to a committee, including head coach Marvin Lewis. As a result, the team promptly found itself a perennial playoff contender after the savvy drafting of franchise players Andy Dalton and A. J. Green, among others.

In hindsight, it appears that this was the new ceiling for the Bengals, with their new management committee. After five consecutive seasons of being unable to make it past the same point, the Bengals finally imploded in 2016/17, winning only 6 games and missing out on the playoffs. Undoubtedly the team had some bad luck, but good luck would have only brought them back to the same Wild Card loss, in all likelihood.

Wild Card losses and being competitive in the division is certainly a step up from two decades of irrelevance. But if the Bengals hope to break through to the next level, something is going to have to give.

Let’s take a look at the offseason that the Bengals have had in order to determine whether or not we believe the team is moving forward or backward, and to determine how we should bet on the Bengals.

Cincinnati Offseason Personnel Moves

Over the years, the Mike Brown Bengals have developed a reputation for certain front office philosophies: acquiring players with “colorful” off-field conduct; an emphasis on loyalty to coaches and managers; fixedness on financial solvency; and refusal to overpay players or re-up contracts unnecessarily.

In this context, with an average amount of available cap space ($40 million), Bengals fans can’t have been overly confident, heading into the 2017 offseason, that their front office would make any broad, sweeping changes. The Bengals got to work with the following free agent roster movement:

The team re-signed emergency replacement kicker Randy Bullock, re-signed wide receiver Brandon LaFell, and signed cornerback Bené Benwikere. Once free agency began, the Bengals re-signed cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and offensive tackle Eric Winston. They then signed offensive lineman Andre Smith and linebacker Kevin Minter from other teams.

In addition, the Bengals saw several of their own players leave in free agency: linebacker Karlos Dansby, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, defensive tackle Domata Peko, halfback Rex Burkhead, and defensive end Margus Hunt.

All told, the Bengals seemed to take a significant step backward in free agency, most notably in the trenches. The departures of star offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth leave the offensive line in shambles, and the departures of Domata Peko and Margus Hunt leave significant holes in the defensive line as well.

With only Andre Smith brought in to address these deficiencies, the Bengals are in serious trouble. After the conclusion of free agency, fans had only to hope that the team was set to address these needs in the draft, rather than simply falling back on their frustrating principle of financial solvency to make do.

Cincinnati Draft Review

In the end, the Cincinnati Bengals had an average draft. Despite the fact that their 11 selections had them tied with the Vikings and Seahawks for the most picks by a single team in the draft, the team took some risks with their early selections and insufficiently addressed their overall needs, particularly at the offensive line position.

The 11 players brought in by the Bengals are as follows:

  • Round 1, #9 Overall: John Ross, WR, Washington
  • Round 2, #48 Overall (trade with Vikings): Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
  • Round 3, #73 Overall: Jordan Willis, DE, Kansas State
  • Round 4, #116 Overall: Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
  • Round 4, #128 Overall (trade with Vikings): Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee
  • Round 4, #138 Overall: Ryan Glasgow, DT, Michigan
  • Round 5, #153 Overall: Jake Elliott, K, Memphis
  • Round 5, #176 Overall: J. J. Dielman, C, Utah
  • Round 6, #193 Overall: Jordan Evans, ILB, Oklahoma
  • Round 6, #207 Overall (trade with Titans): Brandon Wilson, CB, Houston
  • Round 7, #251 Overall: Mason Schreck, TE, Buffalo

First-round selection John Ross certainly meets the Bengals’ need at wide receiver (after losing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu last season), but his recent shoulder surgery and former ACL tear hardly make him a secure bet at #9 overall. It’s possible that the team was set on taking a wide receiver and unprepared to adjust their strategy when they saw the top two receivers come off the board at #5 and #7.

In addition, second-round selection Joe Mixon was a very disheartening pick for some Bengals fans. For those fans that wish to see their team escape the “thug” stereotype, selecting a player who has been charged with a misdemeanor assault for punching a woman was not seen to move the team in the right direction.

On the other hand, fans who defend the pick point to examples in the past of when the Cincinnati Bengals’ organization gave young men a second chance and saw their faith rewarded. In addition, Mixon’s on-field talent certainly excites, and the young man is getting buzz as a potential rookie of the year candidate, with his odds at +1200 (currently the 7th-best in the field).

In later rounds, with another wide receiver, four selections in the defensive front seven, and one offensive lineman, the Bengals did do a reasonably good job of using their large number of selections to address their needs. But it remains to be seen which of these later-round selections will pan out, and which won’t.

2017/18 Cincinnati Bengals Prediction

To summarize the Bengals’ roster movement, first off the team inherited a serious lack of depth at the wide receiver position that was exposed in 2016/17 when A. J. Green was lost to injury. Secondly, during the 2017 free agency period, the team got significantly worse on the offensive line with the departures of Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth, and also sustained losses on the defensive line.

While the team’s conservative fiscal policy and limited cap space yielded no major moves in free agency to address these needs, the Bengals utilized their league-leading 11 draft picks to bring in a first-round wide receiver, several new faces on the defensive front seven, and one new offensive lineman.

But it’s important to remember that the whole reason that the Bengals had so many selections in the draft in the first place. The Bengals ended up with 11 picks because their free agent departures from last season yielded them a whopping four compensatory selections. And these compensatory selections were based on last year’s free agent departures, not counting their losses this season.

When a team spends two consecutive seasons swapping out old, veteran experience for young draft picks, they’re undoubtedly going to get younger. And when a team gets younger – even if their draft picks are super solid – they may get faster (just ask the 2016/17 Atlanta Falcons), but they’re also likely to also get weaker in the mental aspect of the game (just ask the 2016/17 Atlanta Falcons).

Put all this together, and we hold that the Bengals’ roster got objectively worse this offseason.

When we take a closer look at the statistics from last season, the situation doesn’t get much better. According to the advanced sabermetric statistic Pythagorean Expectation, the Bengals should have won 8.3 games in 2016/17, and yet they only won 6. The primary reason for this is that an incredible 8 of their games – half the season’s games – were decided by one possession or less, and the team somehow managed to finish 1-6-1 in those 8 games.

When a young team isn’t mentally tough and doesn’t have enough veteran leadership to compensate, they tend to lose close games.

In addition, the Bengals played the 14th-easiest schedule in the league last season, and they are set to play the 8th-easiest schedule in the league next season (according to the aggregated statistics of their opponents). So in short, the Bengals should have won 9 games last season against a middle-of-the-road schedule, and we’re not so sure they’ll be able to do the same this season even though their schedule gets easier.

This is likely why the Bengals’ AFC Championship odds are so low (+2500, tied with the Dolphins for the 4th-worst in the conference) and why their Super Bowl odds are so low (+5000; tied with the Dolphins, Eagles, and Redskins for the 6th-worst odds in the league). We believe that the Bengals are going to miss the playoffs again and do not see good value here. We would not recommend wagering on either of these future bets.

In the end, we see the Bengals finishing the 2017/18 season at 8-8, and recommend taking the under for their season win total future bet.

And don’t be fooled: from mid-May to mid-June this line went from EVEN to -105, indicating that the over was getting more action than the under and the odds-makers had to adjust the line in order to keep even action on both sides of the line. Feel free to go against the grain on this bet.

Cincinnati Bengals Season Win Total: Over 8.5 Wins (-105); Under 8.5 Wins (-125) – UNDER

Baltimore Ravens Futures Bets

Coming into existence in 1996 as the relocated Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens have only been in existence for 21 seasons, making them one of the youngest franchises in the league. Unlike the other three teams in their division, the Ravens haven’t been around long enough to know what it’s like to switch from one era of football to another.

Throughout this entire stretch, the team has been under the management of franchise hero Ozzie Newsome, the one-time tight end of the Browns. Newsome nabbed Ray Lewis in the first round of his first draft, kicking off a stretch of football in which the team made it to the playoffs 10 times in 17 seasons and won two Super Bowls.

However, after kicking off the John Harbaugh era with five consecutive playoff appearances, nine playoff victories, and a Super Bowl, the retirement of Ray Lewis in 2012 has been followed by a bit of a slump. Despite retaining the same owner, GM, and coach, the team missed out on the playoffs in 2013/14 and 2015/16.

Going into last season, most Ravens fans optimistically believed that the incredible slew of injuries they sustained in 2015/16 were primarily to blame for their 5-11 finish. The fans hoped and expected that once the injury situation reversed itself, the team would be back to its winning ways and would be able to compete with the Pittsburgh Steelers for control of the AFC North and a playoff berth.

Unfortunately, however, 2016/17 led to even more head-scratching than the prior three seasons, and certainly more finger-pointing.

Some fans blamed their 8-8 finish on offensive philosophy (noting that the team fired their offensive coordinator mid-season); some fans blamed it on the ineffective drafting of Ozzie Newsome (noting that the team has drafted and retained only one Pro Bowler since 2008); some fans blamed it on the team aging in place (with multiple players from “the glory days” retiring at the end of the season).

Whatever the reason, the Baltimore Ravens are currently in the hot seat, and if the team does anything other than take a major step forward in 2017/18 the heads could start rolling in the Baltimore front office. After 21 seasons with the same GM, it just might be time for the Ravens to learn what it means to turn over a new leaf and start a new era.

Let’s take a closer look at the team and see what the front office has done this offseason to improve their fortunes, and what this means for our AFC North future bets.

Baltimore Offseason Personnel Moves

For more than a decade, Ravens fans have repeatedly held to a simple offseason mantra: “In Ozzie We Trust.” Originally, what this phrase meant was that even though some of the offseason decisions may have initially seemed strange, it was taken as a given that the decision would eventually pay off, and that in hindsight it would turn out to be correct.

However, in recent years, this mantra has become more and more strained. The team is aging in place, and was the 6th-oldest team in the league as of last season’s 53-man roster cut-downs. The dominant concern of the fans has got to be that Newsome will be unable to adjust to the changing culture of the NFL, and will continue to value big, bruising linebackers and ground-and-pound running backs even while the culture of the NFL changes to hybrid safeties and pass-catching scat backs.

In this context, the Ravens started off the 2017 league year with only $11 million in cap space – the 4th-lowest amount in the league. A big reason for this is the fact that Joe Flacco’s questionable contract counts for $24.5 million against the cap this year – nearly double the amount that the second-highest-paid player is earning.

The first roster movement sustained by the team was the retirement of 37-year old Steve Smith and 24-year old Zach Orr; the one due to age, the other due to a tragic congenital neck and spinal cord injury. The Ravens also terminated the contract of 33-year old outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil.

In order to make sure they didn’t lose too many more bodies on the defense, the Ravens then locked up nose tackle Brandon Williams and defensive back Anthony Levine. Shortly thereafter, the team acquired Cowboys’ cornerback Brandon Carr, and Cardinals’ safety Tony Jefferson.

Later, the Ravens acquired running back Danny Woodhead from the Chargers, and executed two trades – one with the 49ers and one with the Eagles – in order to clear up cap room and trade up draft picks, respectively.

Finally, the Ravens saw several of their own players leave in free agency, including fullback Kyle Juszczyk, offensive guard Vladimir Ducasse, safety Marqueston Huff, wide receiver Kamar Aiken, offensive tackle Ricky Wagner, and interior defensive lineman Lawrence Guy.

In summary, it seems apparent that the Ravens lost a significant amount of quality players to retirement and to free agency, and with only four players brought in through free agency, there’s no question that the Ravens took a step backward during the main thrust of free agency.

Baltimore Draft Review

With free agency insufficient to address the Ravens’ needs, Ravens fans – some still on the fence about the trustworthiness of GM Ozzie Newsome – were left hoping that the 2017 NFL Draft would provide some answers to the pressing personnel questions at pass rush, O-line, and defensive secondary.

In the end, the Ravens drafted the following seven players:

  • Round 1, #16 Overall: Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
  • Round 2, #47 Overall: Tyus Bowser, OLB, Houston
  • Round 3, #74 Overall (trade with Eagles): Chris Wormley, DE, Michigan
  • Round 3, #78 Overall: Tim Williams, OLB, Alabama
  • Round 4, #122 Overall: Nico Siragusa, G, San Diego State
  • Round 5, #159 Overall: Jermaine Eluemunor, OT, Texas A&M
  • Round 6, #186 Overall (trade with 49ers): Chuck Clark, S, Virginia Tech

Naturally, with two secondary players, two offensive linemen, and three pass rush specialists, there’s no doubt that Ozzie Newsome stuck to the script and completely addressed the team’s needs. In particular, Marlon Humphrey is a very solid selection, and either Tyus Bowser or Tim Williams could end up becoming the replacement to the aging Terrell Suggs.

The only major complaint that fans have about this draft class is that – besides the two offensive linemen – Ozzie Newsome did not draft a single offensive player. For fans who watched the Ravens struggle mightily on offense last season and who saw O. J. Howard still on the board at #16, it may have been difficult to watch Ozzie retain his relentless fixation on defensive performance.

Ultimately, though, a stout, bruising defense complementing a serviceable offense has been the formula for the Ravens’ success for over two decades, and has brought them two Super Bowl victories. It’s undoubtedly true that the Ravens’ 2017 draft stuck to this formula; it remains to be seen whether or not the formula can continue to work in 2017/18.

2017/18 Baltimore Ravens Prediction

To review the total roster movement that the Ravens saw over the course of the 2017 offseason, we see that the team sustained a net loss in free agency, watching several players retire and more leave in free agency while bringing in a small number of new players during the major thrust in mid-March.

Subsequently, GM Ozzie Newsome used the draft to focus single-mindedly on filling needs at offensive line, pass rush, and defensive secondary, and by all accounts did a more than adequate job filling these needs. However, with zero offensive skill players brought in, the team is in danger of seeing its offensive capabilities atrophy even further than the 21st-ranked unit in the league in 2016/17.

It should be noted that while Newsome did neglect to bring in any offensive weapons during the opening of free agency or in the draft, he did remedy this later on. In early June, Newsome acquired former 29-year old wide receiver and former first-round draft pick Jeremy Maclin, giving the beleaguered Joe Flacco at least one more tool in his arsenal.

In addition to roster movement, it’s important to take note of some other factors that clue us in to how well the Ravens should perform in 2017/18.

First off, we don’t see any major trends based on the advanced sabermetric statistics. According to Pythagorean Expectation (a measure of team success based on points scored and points allowed), the Baltimore Ravens should have won exactly 8.6 games last season. Given that the team won 8 games, in reality, we wouldn’t expect the Ravens to improve in 2017/18 based on statistical luck.

One stroke of good luck for the Ravens is strength of schedule: After playing the 9th-most difficult schedule in the league in 2016/17, the Ravens have been given a gift by the football gods. According to the combined point differential of their opponents, the Ravens are set to play the 3rd-easiest schedule in the entire league next season.

When we put all this together, it makes for a “limbo” situation that is extraordinarily difficult to forecast: The Ravens are stuck squarely in the middle. The team scored almost exactly as many points as it allowed last season; the team was 8-8 in 2016/17, winning exactly as many games as they lost; their GM is either an ageless visionary or behind the times; their defense-first philosophy is either tried-and-true or outdated.

Even their odds are exactly in the middle of the road: The Ravens’ AFC Championship odds sit at +2000, tied with the Titans for dead center in the middle of the conference. Their Super Bowl odds (+4000) are tied with the Titans and the Bucs in the direct middle of the league. Both of these are either a great value bet or a fool’s errand.

Ultimately, for us the Baltimore Ravens are one of the great enigmas for the 2017/18 season, and we’ll be watching closely to see how things turn out. General manager Ozzie Newsome has done just enough over this offseason to give us confidence that the Ravens will be able to try out the exact approach they have utilized for the last five seasons without having any pressing issues getting in the way.

The confounding factor, though, is that five years ago, this approach yielded a Super Bowl victory; three out of the last four years, this exact same approach missed out on the playoffs.

We’re on the fence about the Baltimore Ravens, but in the end, our gut tells us that we’re not inclined to be optimistic. This is one of the classic examples of what experienced gamblers call a “stayaway”.

Baltimore Ravens Season Win Total: Over 9 Wins (EVEN); Under 9 Wins (-130) – UNDER

Pittsburgh Steelers Futures Bets

Along with the Green Bay Packers, the Pittsburgh Steelers lay claim to being one of the very oldest and most storied franchises in the history of the National Football League. Along with the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers lay claim to being one of the most dynastic teams of the 21st century.

With thirteen playoff games won since Ben Roethlisberger joined the team in 2004, (including two Super Bowls on three appearances and two additional Conference Championship appearances), today’s Steelers fans have developed an expectation that their team will be highly competitive each and every year, and that they will always be in the running for a championship at the end of each season.

However, despite the fact that their star quarterback has a reputation for being tough as nails and for returning from injuries with inhuman speed, Big Ben is now 35 years old, has played for 13 seasons, has missed 23 games, and has taken over 450 sacks. The cumulative effect of this many hits and this many injuries for this many years takes a toll, and Roethlisberger has mentioned publicly that he’s not sure how much longer he wants to keep playing.

What this means is that at this point, every year Steelers fans enter the offseason with some degree of fear that their beloved quarterback might not return the following year, and that the franchise will have to endure a period of transition before they are able to compete at a high level once again. The seamless transition that the Cowboys made last season from Tony Romo to Dak Prescott may be something to hope for, but it is certainly not the norm in today’s NFL.

For this reason, the Steelers’ playoff exits in 2015/16 in the Divisional Round and in 2016/17 in the AFC Championship game – in both cases to the team that would ultimately end up winning the Super Bowl – were particularly heart-breaking for the fans. To come so close, with so few chances remaining, and then to ultimately fall short is hard to swallow.

In this context, let’s take a look at the offseason that the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone thus far in 2017 to see whether or not this could finally be the year, and what this means for our AFC North futures bets.

Pittsburgh Offseason Personnel Moves

An organization that has been as successful as the Steelers have been for so many consecutive years earns a degree of trust among the members of its fan base. If there is no reason to doubt that the front office will do its job to make the team competitive each and every season, then the fans get the opportunity to simply sit back and watch the magic unfold over the course of the offseason.

This offseason’s magic started by taking care of what’s most important, namely the franchise tag of star running back Le’Veon Bell and the extension of outside linebacker and team leader James Harrison. Next offensive tackle Ryan Harris retired, one week before the start of the new league year, and subsequently, on the opening day of free agency, the team cut running back Karlos Williams and gave two-year contract extensions to backup quarterback Landry Jones and tight end David Johnson.

In addition, in the first 48 hours of free agency the Steelers saw wide receiver Markus Wheaton leave to go to the Chicago Bears and linebacker Lawrence Timmons leave for the Miami Dolphins. Over the next few weeks, the team saw linebacker Jarvis Jones leave for the Arizona Cardinals, and also brought on wide receiver Justin Hunter, from the Buffalo Bills; running back Knile Davis, from the Kansas City Chiefs; cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, from the New York Giants; and defensive end Tyson Alualu, from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

This concluded the major moves made by the Pittsburgh Steelers during the main thrust of the 2017 free agency period. As is the case with most of the perennial playoff teams, repeated postseason success makes the offseason a relatively relaxed affair. As the saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Pittsburgh Draft Review

Going into the offseason, the Steelers didn’t have any major needs beyond adding additional depth and continuity at the wide receiver position, a unit that was at times suspect during 2016/17. Given the fact that the team subsequently lost a key pair of linebackers in free agency, the needs were clear.

In this context, the Pittsburgh Steelers brought on the following players in the 2017 NFL Draft:

  • Round 1, #30 Overall: T. J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin
  • Round 2, #62 Overall: Juju Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
  • Round 3, #94 Overall: Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee
  • Round 3, #105 Overall: James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
  • Round 4, #135 Overall: Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
  • Round 5, #173 Overall: Brian Allen, CB, Utah
  • Round 6, #213 Overall: Colin Holba, LS, Louisville
  • Round 7, #248 Overall: Keion Adams, DE, Western Michigan

In terms of evaluating this draft, it’s first interesting to note that the Steelers are one of the few teams across the entire league that simply utilized each of its seven allotted picks (and one additional third-round compensatory selection) in its allotted slot, with no trades of any kind and no movement of the picks.

While of course it’s impossible to speculate what went on in the Steelers’ war room, it’s always possible that a satisfaction with the picks that one has and an unwillingness to trade them simply means that a team utilized a Best Player Available strategy, not wanting to push its luck or make any major reaches.

And by all accounts, it seems that this is what the Steelers did in the 2017 NFL Draft. While focusing on its needs in the first two picks of the draft with a defensive front seven player and a wide receiver, the rest of the picks appeared by all accounts to simply follow the BAP philosophy.

In addition, the fans have to be happy about having a Watt on the team, and also need to feel good that the team is utilizing draft capital to try and fish for the replacement to Ben Roethlisberger. All told, the Steelers had a fine draft, and should be set up well heading into the 2017/18 season.

2017/18 Pittsburgh Steelers Prediction

In terms of roster movement, so far over the course of the 2017 offseason the Pittsburgh Steelers have made moves primarily at wide receiver (losing one and gaining another in free agency) and at linebacker (sustaining a net loss in free agency). Subsequently, in the draft, the team addressed these two needs with its first two picks, and utilized a Best Player Available strategy with its other six picks.

What this yields, in the end, is a team that by all accounts looks very similar to the team that made it to the AFC Championship game last season. There’s no reason to expect the Steelers to be significantly worse based on roster movement.

When we look beyond roster movement at the statistical and scheduling patterns that clue us in to how well we expect Pittsburgh to perform in 2017/18, we note that their Pythagorean Expectation (an advanced sabermetric statistic based on points scored and points allowed) tracked well with their performance in 2016/17, and that their schedule – while difficult last season – does not get appreciably more difficult in 2017/18.

In sum, all of these factors put together make the Steelers a pretty good bet for the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, and the book-keepers know it. This is why the Steelers’ odds for making it to the big dance currently sit at +700, (tied with the Raiders for the second best in the conference behind only the Pats) and their odds of winning it all sit at +1600, (tied in a logjam of the Falcons, Cowboys, Seahawks, and Raiders for the 4th best odds in the league).

We think there’s good value in the Steelers’ odds for both of these games, and would definitely recommend that interested gamblers consider laying some capital on the Steelers’ odds to make a run at a title this season. We’d certainly put them above the Falcons, Cowboys, and Seahawks for Super Bowl potential.

In terms of the Steelers’ win total over/under, we would simply note the fact that the team won 11 games last year despite Ben Roethlisberger tearing his meniscus, missing four games, and coming back much too early from the injury to finish out the rest of the season. There’s no real reason to believe that the Steelers can’t get back to 11 or 12 wins again, particularly if they are able to stay a little healthier.

Ultimately, with the clock ticking on the Ben Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh, this may be one of the last chances that Big Ben has to add another ring to his collection. And as always, the more that a team wants it, the better their chances of getting it.

Pittsburgh Steelers Season Win Total: Over 10.5 Wins (-115); Under 10.5 Wins (-115) – OVER

2017/18 AFC North Division Winner

In summary, unlike hotbed divisions that are undergoing dramatic change before our very eyes (such as the NFC East), after taking a good look at the AFC North there doesn’t appear to be any real reason why the status quo would change in 2017/18.

Specifically, we believe that the Cleveland Browns are going to take a major step forward, improving by 4 wins. However, given that they won only one game last season, this doesn’t change much. We foresee the Bengals and the Steelers staying exactly where they are – as a fringe playoff contender and a primary Super Bowl contender, respectively. Finally, while the Baltimore Ravens are one of the toughest teams to predict in all the NFL, a quick gut-check reveals that we seriously doubt that the Ravens will have the offensive firepower to threaten the Steelers in 2017/18.

Currently, the odds at the Bovada Sportsbook for the AFC North race are as follows:

  • Cleveland Browns +3300
  • Cincinnati Bengals +250
  • Baltimore Ravens +175
  • Pittsburgh Steelers +110

In thinking about value, there’s very little to be found at this juncture; we’d say conservatively that there’s a 0.00000001% chance of the Browns winning the division, and even if we give the Bengals a generous 5% chance, that still doesn’t provide any good value.

If the Ravens do come on strong and give the Steelers a run for their money, their odds in this case don’t merit an investment any more than the Steelers’ do, and in any case we do believe that the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be the ones to take the AFC North in 2017/18. For us, we’re going to trust our gut and go with the sure thing, but we’ll be watching the Ravens extra close when the season rolls around.

2017/18 AFC North Division Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers

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