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Run 'N' Shoot: Backing the Steelers at 22:1

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa has been sharing his fantasy insights for Rotowire since 2007. Mark is the 2010 and 2012 Staff Picks champion (eat your heart out, Chris Liss) and won Rotowire's 14-team Staff League II in consecutive seasons. He roots for the Bills and has season tickets on the second row, press level to the Rays.

I've enjoyed writing "Working the Wire" for Rotowire for several years now. There's just something rewarding about finding a diamond in the rough and helping fellow fantasy owners. As my loyal readers - both of them - know, though, I have many other thoughts on the NFL, not just regarding waiver claims. Rotowire has been kind enough to give me my own column this year, to discuss whatever I want (NFL-related), so I'm stoked to unveil it, starting now.

We'll talk NFL. Fantasy football. Waiver claims. Trade ideas. General fantasy strategies, such as my thoughts on incorporating positional scarcity into your auction strategy. But there's more to the NFL than fantasy football, so power rankings and gambling odds are in play, and I'll make some predictions along the way.

As for the name of the article, I'm going with "Run-N-Shoot." I like the way it sounds - fast-paced, innovative, unpredictable and fun. It's better than "Jumbo Package," anyway.

So without further ado ...

Who's going to lead the NFL in rushing? That's one of many questions I asked myself as I perused the different sports books in Vegas over the July 4th holiday. Even though the NFL season is still weeks away, Vegas gives NFL fans plenty of chances to gamble and talk football during the offseason. The four main books (MGM, Cantor, Caesars and Hilton) all had an Over/Under win total and Super Bowl line for each NFL team, and there were some prop bets (most passing, rushing and receiving yards) as well.

If you're not a degenerate gambler, or you don't think gambling applies to fantasy football, then you should reconsider. Fantasy football doesn't exist in a vacuum. Players compile stats in a team concept, and the public's perception of the strength of those teams, as reflected by Vegas' lines, matters.

So who's going to lead the NFL in rushing? Here's what the betting sheet looked like:

Adrian Peterson 7/2
Marshawn Lynch 13/2
Arian Foster 8/1
Alfred Morris 10/1
Doug Martin 10/1
*Jamall Charles* 12/1
Chris Johnson 12/1
Lamar Miller 15/1
Steven Jackson 15/1
Trent Richardson 15/1
DeMarco Murray 15/1
Lance Ball 18/1
Maurice Jones-Drew 18/1
Ray Rice 18/1
Eddie Lacy 20/1
LeSean McCoy 20/1
Matt Forte 20/1
C.J. Spiller 20/1
David Wilson 22/1
Darren McFadden 22/1
Frank Gore 22/1

For me, a few things jumped off the list. First, notice how Jamaal Charles' name is spelled wrong? And what's up with Lance Ball, a fullback who hardly plays, being listed at 18/1 instead of the running back the Broncos traded up to draft, Montee Ball? Could it be that the guys setting these lines weren't paying close enough attention? That's certainly what I thought when I saw C.J. Spiller listed at 20:1. In 2012, Spiller had 1,244 yards rushing despite sharing time with Fred Jackson. Although known for his speed, Spiller broke more tackles than any running back in the NFL besides Adrian Peterson on his way to 6.0 YPC. Just entering his prime behind a good offensive line, Spiller is a great bet at 20:1. Yes, he's an injury risk, but bets like this aren't about what can go wrong - they're about what can go right.

When I approached the window at Harrah's, I wanted to throw down $500 on Spiller. They refused to take it, and the manager came over. After a lengthy argument, Harrah's said they were limiting me to $100 and would make a phone call to "the boss" to lower the line. I couldn't believe it. I alternated between being nice and insulting ("Are you telling me $10,000 would bankrupt Harrah's?" "I don't see a sign that says "Kids-sized bets only," "Are you going to give me a Happy Meal with this?"), but to no avail. Their official explanation? "Not many people bet on these props, so we'll lose money if Spiller wins." While pissed, I felt emboldened that I knew what I was doing (and that the lines for prop bets aren't as tight as we usually see from Vegas, hence, the Charles misspelling and the listing of Lance Ball instead of Montee Ball). So I ran to Flamingo, which follows the same book, and while it took a few different tickets, I got my $500 on Spiller to win the rushing title at 20:1.

That whole experience at Harrah's taught me something ... when it comes to setting lines, we all know Vegas is really good. But for prop bets? Perhaps not so much. Let's put it this way ... if I can walk up with $500 and force them to change their line, then the line was wrong in the first place. And if one line is wrong, who's to say others can't be?

That wasn't the only time a book refused to take my money. I tried to bet on Chris Weidman to beat Anderson Silva at about 2:00 a.m. the night before their UFC fight (h/t Kevin Payne), and the Venetian, which follows Cantor, told me they weren't taking any more bets for Weidman since so many people were betting on him. They'd take a bet for Silva, but not Weidman. I got that bet placed the following day, and I was one of many to cash on it, but geez ... how weird is it to know that Vegas stopped taking bets for one side? I guess it's good to know Vegas sometimes loses, too.

The lines for "most passing yards" and "most receiving yards" seemed a bit tighter. I took Drew Brees at 7:2 and Matthew Stafford at 13:2, passing on the only other QBs I saw as having a realistic chance of having the most passing yards: Peyton Manning at 5:1, Aaron Rodgers at 13:2; Matt Ryan and Tom Brady at 8:1, and Tony Romo and Eli Manning at 15:1. Peyton will have too many games where Denver doesn't have to throw in the second half. The Packers are too willing to sit on leads. The Falcons run too much. The Patriots lost too much talent at receiver and tight end and should be more run/pass balanced than usual. The Giants like to run, too - probably more than they should. Romo can't stay healthy enough and, frankly, just isn't quite good enough. And everyone else in the NFL either isn't good enough or runs too frequently (Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick). Meanwhile, I expect the Saints to get their mojo back with Sean Payton coaching again, and the Lions have no running game and Calvin Johnson. Perhaps better yet, both teams have awful defenses, so Brees and Stafford should be throwing all season, much like the past couple of years. If I were trying to pick the winner, I might take Brees and Stafford and give you the field, so I like Brees at 7:2 and Stafford at 13:2.

Here was the list for most receiving yards:

Calvin Johnson 5/2
Brandon Marshall 6/1
A.J. Green 7/1
Andre Johnson 7/1
Dez Bryant 15/2
Wes Welker 12/1
Danny Amendola 12/1
Larry Fitzgerald 14/1
Roddy White 14/1
Vincent Jackson 15/1
Demaryius Thomas 15/1
Julio Jones 15/1
Victor Cruz 16/1
DeSean Jackson 18/1
Miles Austin 20/1
Percy Harvin 20/1
Randall Cobb 20/1
Marques Colston 20/1
Reggie Wayne 25/1
Dwayne Bowe 25/1
Field 12/1

Anyone jump out at you here? Calvin Johnson is a rather obvious choice, particularly since I also like Stafford. But 5/2 isn't a great return, and Johnson does have a way of getting hurt here and there. I like Julio Jones a little at 15:1, but it's hard to like him too much with Roddy White on the same team. Ultimately, I passed here. Who do you like?

Prop bets are fun, but there's nothing quite like choosing a Super Bowl winner. Fantasy football aside, that's what the NFL is all about - predicting who will take home the trophy.

For me, any futures bet on the Super Bowl winner starts with quarterback play. After all, last season's anomaly aside (yes, I'm stubbornly calling it a fluke, Ravens fans - Joe Flacco had seven passing TDs in eight road games during the regular season, so having nine TDs in three games away from home in the playoffs, with zero INTs, screams "outlier"), the Super Bowl winner almost always has a stud QB or an historically great defense. Just look at the Super Bowl winners over the last 20 years.

The NFC has lots of QBs who fit the bill, especially after 2012, when Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III joined Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan and arguably Tony Romo and Cam Newton in the group of top-shelf signal-callers. But that's precisely why bets on any NFC team are unappealing - with so many good quarterbacks, a lot of NFC teams have realistic Super Bowl aspirations. The 49ers and Seahawks are both around 1:1 to win their own division (even though we all know it's necessarily impossible for both to do so). A Super Bowl bet of around 6:1 doesn't work for the same reason. None of the NFC East teams seem trustworthy or title-worthy, each being as likely to finish last as to make the playoffs. I thought about the Saints and Giants when I found lines approaching 20:1 and the Packers around 10:1 but ultimately decided there are just too many good QBs in the NFC to like those rates.

So for the NFC, I limited myself to "over" 10.5 wins for the Packers at +115. Not exciting, I suppose, but I'll take a better than 1:1 return betting on the league's best player and a team that's won at least 11 games the past two seasons. It helps that I'm down on Detroit (no pass defense or running game) and Minnesota (no defense or QB play), two teams the Packers should beat twice each.

What the NFC has in stud QBs the AFC lacks. Yes, there's Denver, which looks even stronger than last year with Wes Welker and Montee Ball in the fold. But there's no value in betting anyone at 5:1 to win the Super Bowl, especially with Peyton Manning's career playoff record. 2:9 for the Broncos to win the division is similarly unappealing.

But you tell me - other than Denver, who else is there in the AFC? The Ravens seem sure to regress with a title in hand and all the offseason losses. In fact, Vegas has their O/U win total at 8.5, the same number of points they're getting in Week 1. (Flacco should have his best fantasy season, though, throwing more than ever, and Dennis Pitta has significant profit potential as the second option in the passing game.) If Rob Gronkowski can't return from back surgery, the Patriots are a Danny Amendola injury from having nobody you've ever heard of catching all the passes, and the defense has been subpar for years now. Philip Rivers used to look like a Super Bowl QB but doesn't any more, Matt Schaub never has, and Andy Dalton never will. The Colts, Dolphins and Chiefs are a year away from perhaps being in this conversation, and the Jets, Bills, Browns, Raiders, Jaguars and Titans aren't close.

That leaves one AFC team - the Steelers. Pittsburgh has a top-three coach, a Hall of Fame QB with two rings already, and after missing the 2012 playoffs, the bounce-back factor is in play. I made hefty bets (winning at blackjack and getting to use house money helps immensely) on the Steelers at 22:1 to win the Super Bowl and at 9:5 to win the division. I considered betting over 9 wins at -130 or over 9.5 at +130 but a nearly 2:1 return to win that division seems far better. (If they win 10 games, they'll win the division, and they could take the division even with 9 wins). Dalton Del Don likes these lines, too, and a nod of approval from colleagues always helps.

So it's the Steelers to win the Super Bowl at 22:1, to win the division at 9:5, Spiller to win the rushing title at 20:1, and the Packers to finish over 10.5 wins at +115. I also put $500 on the Rays at 25:1, but that's a different column, I suppose.

Before long, we'll see if these bets pan out. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.