Betting the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (OROY) 2021, Best Values

Could Mac Jones be your best bet for OROY?

Betting the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (OROY) 2021, Best Values

Sports wagering should be treated similarly to stock portfolios. With wagering capital allocated in percentages across the full panoply of options; spreads, totals, moneylines, futures, and props. In short, a balanced portfolio. With proper allocation from the start, you will find yourself, as the season progresses, with opportunities to employ more sophisticated strategies such as hedging, middling, and, if you are genuinely fortunate, arbitrage.

The Offensive Rookie of the Year (OROY) is a hybrid play. It is a futures wager, but it is also a player prop. It is also subject to greater randomness than typical future or prop wagers. This should be evident, but if it is not, look at the lines. Every candidate this year is at least +260, which results in implied odds of only 27.78% for the favorite. I have read people that try to compare it to betting on a golf tournament. I find this a false equivalency. We at least know the course length, cut, and information about the greens in golf tournaments. We can use that information to align with a player’s skillset. 

That said, it is not purely a random wager, like betting on the coin flip. The critical thing to remember when wagering on OROY is to reduce your unit size accordingly to reflect the diminished odds. If you do not understand how and why odds relate to unit size, I suggest reading at length on the Kelly Criterion. Please keep in mind that a Kelly approach is maximumly aggressive, and most employ a fraction of Kelly. For example, a quarter-Kelly system. 

What Positions Win OROY

Before assessing the odds and the candidates, it is essential to understand the award from a macro perspective. Since 2010, the following positions have won the award:

Quarterback: 54.5%

Running Back: 36.3%

Wide Receiver: .09%

I selected 2010 as a demarcation line with what we would term collectively as the modern NFL. However, the sample size, 11, is admittedly small. If we go back to 2000, we get the following results:

Quarterback: 42.8%

Running Back: 42.8%

Wide Receiver: 12.2%

The preceding demonstrates that the race is a two-position race between quarterback and running back. Moreover, the race has taken a decided shift toward the quarterback in the previous eleven years. 

Throughout this article, I am using lines that are readily available everywhere. I am doing this so the information can provide the most guidance to the most people. Better lines are available, and you should always take the time to get the best number—small percentages matter. 

The OROY Candidates:

Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville QB, +260 (27.78%)

Lawrence will start the season at quarterback. Barring injury, he will play every game. Lawrence was the number one overall pick. He was also the number one recruit out of high school. He was probably suckling on a golden pacifier in the baby nursery. He’s been football special since forever.

In addition, the Jaguars are going to be much better. Yes, in part because of Lawrence. However, for other reasons as well. First, the Jaguars tanked last season. I do not believe players or coaches tank, but front offices do, and the Jags did. Second, the Jaguars should expect to see positive regressions in both turnovers and the outcomes of one-score games. The Jaguars finished -8 in net turnover differential, 26th in the league. The Jaguars went an astonishing 1-6 in one-score games last season. The increased number of wins for Jacksonville that my model predicts will feed the Lawrence narrative. When betting on awards like these, never forget that the narrative drives voters’ decisions. If it is a close race at the end of the season, the award is going to Lawrence. 

In addition, Lawrence will face pass defenses this season with an average rank of 17th. Speaking of narratives, the difficulty of opposing pass defenses gets markedly easier as the season progresses. Specifically, three of the last five pass defenses rank in the bottom five of the league. The fourth team ranks in the bottom third of the league. This is important because if the race is close, look for Lawrence to have an excellent opportunity to close the door late in the season with four consecutive outstanding performances. This will feed the narrative that he improved dramatically throughout the season. Narrative matters for season awards. If he can rescue a baby from a building fire in Week 12, it’s a lock.

The odds imply that if we could play this season four times, Lawrence would win the award once. The model thinks this is an accurate number. 

Justin Fields, Chicago, QB, +550 (15.38%)

The model loves Justin Fields and had him rated as the number two quarterback in the draft. While he may hold the ball too long at times, he has a powerful, accurate arm and makes good decisions. Late in the draft process, many stories were floated quoting anonymous sources indicating that Fields cannot go through his progressions. I do not buy it. Yes, OSU employed a scheme that did not require him to progress through reads, but it is illogical to conclude that the skill is beyond him merely because of the scheme he played under.

The real issue with Fields will be playing time. There is no way Nagy runs him out in week one against the Rams and Donald. It’s like taking your new Benz out during a hail storm. Or so I’m told. Of course, Nagy is letting Fields get blown up behind the second-string offensive line in the preseason, which is just one more illogical Nagyism. Most of the debate centers on whether he will start week two or four. While the opponent will play a role in the decision, Nagy cannot be too comfortable with his job security. Playing a rookie at quarterback provides Nagy cover. If the Bears had a middle-of-the-road offensive line and Fields started in week two, I would jump this number. As it is, I will pass with the caveat that Fields will be an outstanding NFL quarterback, and I will never understand why Denver passed him by in the draft.

Like Lawrence, the Bears quarterback will face a middle-of-the-road schedule of pass defenses this season, currently ranked 16th. If the Bears start Fields week two, he will start his career against four straight sub-par pass defenses. This could catapult him into the early front-runner. However, four of his final six games will be against above-average pass defenses – right when Lawrence is feasting on the easy part of his schedule. The problem, as mentioned above, is the horrendous offensive line in Chicago. 

The odds are relatively close to 1 in 6, the same as predicting the toss of a single die. I want to bet this, but there is just too much uncertainty at that price. 

Trey Lance, Quarterback, San Francisco +600 (14.29%)

Trey Lance has the same problem as Fields, playing time. Only with Lance, the situation is even murkier. The bottom line is that while quarterbacks win this award far more frequently, they have to start to win. I expect Lance to have several packages at quarterback as early as week one. However, I believe it is far more likely that it is a spot series or strictly situational. The upshot on Lance is that if he somehow is starting by week four, a healthy 49ers team is so loaded with talent that he could take them to a playoff birth. Lawrence, on the other hand, will not sniff the playoffs. A wager on Lance comes down to if or when he starts. 

The 49ers will face the 18th rated pass defense schedule this season. There is less to draw on in this area as we do not know when or if Lance will take the helm. And the 49er quarterback will take the snap from a top fifteen offensive line. 

If he takes the starting position early in the season, this is the best bet on the board. However, keep in mind, you are betting on two things. First, you are wagering that he starts enough games. Second, you are wagering that he performs at a high level. In this way, a wager on Lance is similar to a parlay. The odds are not there for me as a solid recommendation, but it is not a wrong choice if you want to take a flyer.

Zach Wilson, Quarterback, Jets +750 (11.76%)

Wilson is an intriguing option. Unlike Fields and Lance, he is the guaranteed week one starter. Therefore, Wilson has a clear path to leapfrog both of them in this race. He has an outstanding coaching staff, including long-time Shanahan assistant LaFleur. This staff will put Wilson in a position to succeed. He also has the arm and the targets to stretch the field with highlight-worthy plays that could drive the narrative in his favor. Like the Jaguars, the Jets’ record should improve this season. The path is there for Wilson, but he will have to take the award from Lawrence. 

Wilson faces a similarly ranked schedule of pass defenses, which averages out to just over the 16th rated. Unlike Lawrence and Fields, he does not have an apparent run against sub-par pass defenses that provide an obvious opportunity to create attention. Moreover, he is operating behind an offensive line better than Chicago’s but still sub-par. 

Wilson is tempting. I would jump on this if the number were slightly better. The model indicates the correct price is +900. Should you take +750? That’s not great value, in my book.

Najee Harris, Running Back, Pittsburgh +800 (11.11%)

Yes, running backs win the OROY award. Three have won it in the last eleven years. They were Barkley, Kamara, and Gurley. I should admit my shared bias with my model. I am opposed to drafting a running back in the first round. I am opposed to giving one a second contract except in the rarest 1% of situations. Ask Dallas in two years how they feel about that Zeke contract. Or you can ask them now. Sure would be nice to have a defense. The math isn’t there for running backs. Or the knees.

Harris is a fine player. I will not put my money on a running back unless it is a Barkley. I would not have wagered on Kamara or Gurley either in full disclosure. Still, Harris’ number has been steadily falling as Pittsburgh has shown a commitment to giving him the carries he will need during the preseason. I put about as much stock in the preseason as I do in the NBA summer league, which is to say, none. The Steelers’ collapse last season was not simply mathematically predictable; it was expected. And that was against one of the easiest schedules in the league. The Steelers schedule this season is top-five in difficulty. This indicates the Steelers could be playing from behind, often. Presumably, this means they will break their game-plan and run less. Compounding the problem, the model ranks the Steelers offensive line 29th in the league, which may be generous. The lone ray of hope, the Steelers face, in total, a middle-of-the-road, 19th ranked, schedule of run defenses this season.  

For me, it is a hard pass on Harris. The number would have to be astronomical to get my attention – something in the neighborhood of +1600. Najee Harris seems like a great dude. But that’s a bad reason to waste good money.

Kyle Pitts, Atlanta, TE +1000 (9.09%)

I am buying Pitts. I know I spent the first half of the article trying to convince you that you should only wager on a quarterback. I know that zero tight-ends have won the award, ever. Pitts isn’t just a first-round tight-end. He is the highest-drafted tight-end in NFL history. And there is a reason for it. In his case, the position is interchangeable with a wide receiver. You can put Pitts anywhere on the field. 

Pitts has a tremendous amount of upside. With Julio Jones traded, Pitts and Ridley will have plenty of targets. Ryan always had intense love affairs with his competent tight-ends. Pitts is a freak, an alien, a unicorn. He has size, speed, strength, and elite hands. Is he a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, or vice-versa? One thing is certain, Pitts is an unstoppable force, especially in the red zone. The path for Pitts is tricky but precise. Lawrence and Wilson play well but do not blow the roof off. Fields and Lance play too little to be serious contenders. Then Pitts throws down 90 receptions (I will not be surprised if he cracks 100), 1000 plus yards, and 8-11 touchdowns. 

The model has Pitts’ correct number at +850. Since he is going off at +1000, I will take it and thank the book kindly for the 1.44% edge. This is a pure value play with the added benefit of rooting all season long for this man.

Mac Jones, Patriots, Quarterback +1200 (7.69%)

Newton had a terrible season last year. His throws landed in the dirt 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and ten yards short of the intended receiver. Yet, the word was Newton would start. He has looked much, much better in the offseason. Newton is a highly intelligent quarterback. Yet, suddenly there are some indications out of Foxboro that Jones takes the job from him. Belichick loves Newton as a person, but Jones is the type of player he trusts. (Also worth noting, Cam and Covid and the league’s protocols.)

Uncharacteristically, the Patriots splurged on offense in free agency. The talent on both sides of the ball is legitimate. I do not believe they can overtake the Bills, but they have a shot for a wild card berth. Belichick is the one that sat Bledsoe for Brady after the injury. 

I still believe Newton starts the season, but he will be yanked after the first bad game even if he does start. If Mac Jones gets enough starts, this number is too good to pass. Jones may not be the next Brady. But he hardly needs to be to win OROY. +1200 is a solid value.

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