Can Prop Bets Help You In Fantasy Football?
February 11, 2013 | Phil Alexander
I like to gamble. Those who know me best would tell you I like to gamble too much. Tough for me to argue. When you find yourself watching the Women’s Australian Open at 4AM, wishing slow death on Victoria Azarenka, I guess you have to concede the debate. Don’t blame me, I’m pretty sure it’s genetic – my old man is a stock market junkie, my Uncle may still be paying sports gambling debts from the early 80’s, and even my 90 year old Grandma would post up at the stationary store scratching off lotto tickets all day if we’d let her.
I’m sure there will come a day when I reread that paragraph and recognize it as a sign that I may want to curb the gambling a bit. I can assure you however, that this Sunday will not be that day. The Super Bowl is no time for introspection or self improvement – especially not when the sports book’s prop bet menu is longer than the line at the DMV.
As I began sifting through the props and parsing out the silliness (anything involving Alicia Keys and/or Gatorade), a curious thought occurred to me. Why don’t fantasy owners consider Vegas player prop betting odds when setting their line-ups? If Vegas makes a player a heavy favorite to exceed a certain yardage mark or TD total, are they any more likely to actually do it? I’ve never read anything on this topic before. Could the fantasy community be letting a key predictor of statistical performance hide from them in plain sight?
Time for a science experiment!
First a disclaimer: In order to find out if player prop betting odds hold any meaning for fantasy owners, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more research than I have the time, or wherewithal to undertake. That being said, Sunday’s big game should at least give us an opportunity to look at a small sample, test the hypothesis, and see if something turns up that’s worth exploring further.
What follows is a listing of some fantasy relevant player props and their associated betting odds for Sunday’s HarBowl (yes, my soul just curled up into the fetal position as I typed that). Also, since I’m an insufferable know-it-all, I couldn’t resist sharing my analysis and pick for each bet. Next week, I’ll examine the results and see if any conclusions can be drawn that will help our fake teams.
The Prop: Ray Rice Receptions O/U 3-1/2. Over +115, Under -145
At first glance I was confused by the odds on this one. Rice is a great receiving back, no? Why would taking the over net you an extra $15? Turns out Rice isn’t even averaging 3-1/2 targets per game this playoffs. His reception totals since the wild card round are 1, 0, and 3. Major decline from a guy who averaged over 3.8 receptions per game during the regular season (over 4 if you throw out Week 17 vs. the Bengals when he played only sparingly). For what it’s worth, the Niners allowed an average of 3.1 receptions per game to the RB position, although that number rose to 5.14 per game from weeks 11 to 17.
The Pick: I’ll take the over and the extra juice. I can picture the Niners pass rush swarming Flacco and forcing a fair amount of dump offs to Rice.
The Result: Rice went over the number, catching all 4 of his targets, albeit for only 19 yards. Going up against a tough 49ers run D, Rice found the sledding predictably tough, gaining only 59 yards on 20 rushes. Even though he ended up going over on the catch the number, this line was a fair indicator that you shouldn’t have expected much from Rice in this game.
Vegas Favorites 0-1
The Prop: Will Frank Gore score a TD? Yes -130, No Even
Gore scored 8 times in the regular season and has 3 TD’s in two postseason games. Baltimore allowed 15 rushing TD’s this season, good for only 23rd in the NFL. Thus far in the post season however, the Ravens have yet to allow an opposing RB cross the stripe.
The Pick: I’m rolling with Vegas and risking the $130 to win $100. Gore will get in. The Ravens might not have allowed a RB to score on the ground against them this post season, but don’t forget they faced Vick Ballard (2 rush TD’s on the year) in the Wild Card round, and way more Ronnie Hillman than the Broncos would care to remember in the Divisional round.
If you have some disposable income, you may also want to consider LaMichael James to score a TD (+300). I have a sneaking suspicion the Super Bowl will be his official coming out party.
The Result: Gore was exceptional in the game rushing for 110 yards on 19 carries, including a 6 yard, 3rd quarter TD run that helped get the Niners back within a score. If SF hadn’t botched their final drive and won the game, Gore was a prime MVP candidate. Easy money. And I hope you turned down that invite to the LaMichael James coming out party.
Phil 2-0, +215
Vegas Favorites 1-1, -45
The Prop: Michael Crabtree receptions O/U 6-1/2. Over -120, Under -110
The resurgent Crabtree caught 9 balls against Green Bay and 6 vs. the Falcons. He averaged 5.3 per game over the regular season, but that number bumped up to 5.85 per game once Colin Kaepernick took over in week 11. As usual, Vegas has done a pretty good job setting the over/under.
The Pick: Crabtree has finished over the number in 5 out of his last 7 games. Vegas has the over as a small favorite and I agree. Reggie Wayne grabbed 9 balls in the Divisional round against the Ravens, and I think Crabtree can do the same, or at least come close.
The Result: Big game for Crabtree who finished with 109 receiving yards and a sweet 31 yard TD catch. Unfortunately, he hauled in only 5 of the 10 balls Kaepernick sent his way and finished under the number. Looking back, I’m not sure what would make me bet the over. My case for seven catches (Reggie Wayne did it) was awfully flimsy from the start.
Phil 2-1, +95
Vegas Favorites 1-2, -165
The Prop: Anquan Boldin receiving yards O/U 65-1/2. Over -125, Under -105
Boldin has reminded everyone this post season that he belongs in the conversation when discussing the best wide receivers in the game (perhaps the timing is no coincidence). Boldin averaged 61.4 yards per game during the regular season, but the over is the favorite thanks to his 92 YPG average this post season. For whatever it’s worth, San Francisco is a familiar opponent for Boldin, dating back to his NFC West days. In 14 career games vs. the 49ers, Boldin has averaged 75.2 YPG.
The Pick: I’m going to fade Vegas on this one and go slightly under. I still think Boldin will be involved in the game plan, and is a good shot to score a TD (+125). It just seems as though Vegas is counting on the public to remember his 145 yard game vs. Denver, and his two TD performance vs. New England when placing their bets. Those 2 TD’s in the AFC championship game mask the fact that he finished with only 60 yards receiving.
The Result: Probably my worst pick of the column. I have no idea why I poo-pooed the fact that Boldin came into the game on fire. He stole the Niners lunch money in the Super Bowl, making game changing, degree of difficulty catches seemingly at will. He crushed the yardage total with 6-104-1 line.
Phil 2-2, -10
Vegas Favorites 2-2, +55
The Prop: Torrey Smith longest catch O/U 28-1/2 yards. Over -120, Under -110
Smith has caught a bomb longer than 28-1/2 yards in exactly half of the 32 regular season games he’s ever played in. That should make this one a coin flip, but Vegas is making you risk $120 to win $100 on the over. Much like Boldin, I have to imagine Smith is getting a little extra respect thanks to his Divisional game performance. Forcing Champ Bailey to turn in his elite corner back club membership card will do that for you.
The Pick: Over, but I’m not exactly an impartial 3rd party. Smith is my prop bet boyfriend dating back to last year’s playoffs when I picked him to score a TD vs. New England (+275 – and yes I still remember what the odds were on a championship round prop bet I won over a year ago). Feelings aside, I think that Smith has it in him to take the top off the Niners defense for a few big gainers, the same way Julio Jones did in the NFC championship game.
The Result: Quiet game for Smith who caught only two balls for 35 yards. As a guy who owned Smith on more fantasy teams than I’d care to admit, I can’t say I’m surprised he jumped at the opportunity to cost me more money.
Phil 2-3, -130
Vegas Favorites 2-3, -65
The Prop: Vernon Davis receiving yards O/U 52-1/2. Over – Even, Under -130
As @BaxFootBallGuru pointed out on Twitter, Vernon Davis has 16 receptions, 442 yards, and 5 TD’s in 4 career playoff games dating back to last season. He’s also fresh off a 5-105-1 game against the Falcons on Championship Sunday. The reason Vegas favors the under would be the 34.25 yards per game he averaged during the regular season.
The Pick: The over here might be my favorite player prop of the Super Bowl. The fact that Vegas isn’t charging their normal vig to take the over does make me a little leery of a trap, but Davis’ recent playoff history would suggest that he could easily double this number. Come to think of it, if you’re looking for a high-risk, high-reward pick for MVP of the game, you might want to consider Davis (+2,200).
The Result: This one was money on the floor just waiting to be picked up. Davis put up 104 yards on six receptions, more or less doubling the over as I predicted. The Ravens had no answer for Davis over the middle. I’m befuddled as to why he wasn’t targeted about 10 more times in the game. And if he had caught this pass late in the 4th? That MVP bet just might have cashed too.
Phil 3-3, -30
Vegas Favorites 2-4, -195
The Prop: Joe Flacco TD passes O/U 1-1/2. Over -140, Under +110
Flacco has gone over this number in all three of the Ravens’ playoff wins, and has thrown 3 TD passes in each of his last two games. The over seems like a lock, and Vegas agrees, making it a fairly prohibitive favorite. Before jumping in with both feet however, bettors might also consider that Flacco went under this number in 10 out of 16 regular season games.
The Pick: My spider sense is tingling. There’s a trap lurking in one of these bets and I’m almost certain this is the one. Would it really be shocking if Flacco, the so called “King Slayer” and newest member of the NFL’s “QB elite”, took a crap in this game, ruining the prevailing media narrative? I don’t think so, but 1-1/2 is still a low enough number that I have to reluctantly take the over.
The Result: As it would turn out, I don’t have spider sense. This one was a walk in the park. Flacco put up 3 TD’s to go along with 287 passing yards, earning himself over $20 million a year in the process, and spurring a nauseating number of “Is he elite?” debates in the national media and on Twitter.
Phil 4-3, +70
Vegas Favorites 3-4, -95
The Prop: Colin Kaepernick rushing yards O/U 55-1/2. Over +105, Under -135
Vegas isn’t buying the media’s constant gushing over the read option, or Kaepernick’s reputation as a running quarterback. If we throw out the ridiculous Green Bay game, in which he broke the NFL rushing record for a QB, Kapernick’s rushing totals over his last 4 games are 28, 31, 5, and 21. The under is the heavy favorite for good reason.
The Pick: Over. I think Kaepernick is going to abuse the Ravens in every way imaginable and lead the 49ers to a convincing win. Kaepernick has broken a run of 50 yards or more in exactly one third of his nine starts this season, giving him a decent shot at reaching this total on a single play. After he went Tecmo Bowl on Green Bay, he made the Falcons pay for overcompensating to stop the run by beating them with his arm. I don’t think the Ravens have the answer that GB and ATL didn’t. Kaep will have the Ravens off balance and gash them for at least one huge gain on the ground.
The Result: Kaepernick finished with 7 rushes for 62 yards, covering the over with room to spare. It’s a shame it took him so long to realize he could run at will on the Ravens. Once he started taking off, it predictably knocked the Baltimore D off balance, and a terrific Super Bowl ensued.
Phil 5-3, +175
Vegas Favorites 3-5, -230
There are so many props that I could keep going with picks and analysis right up until game time, but I think this gives us a good enough sample to satisfy my curiosity. Do player prop betting odds give us a window into predicting fantasy performance? We’ll find out next week when I re-post this article, and analyze the results.
Do player prop betting odds give us a window into predicting fantasy performance?
Like I said earlier, this is too small a sample and not enough research to draw any definitive conclusions, but it’s worth noting that the Vegas favorite was wrong 60% of the time.
That probably says more about why you should stay away from player prop bets than it does anything about fantasy sports. There’s just too much variance in players’ statistical output from week to week to think you can predict it with any great reliability – but isn’t that the very foundation upon which fantasy sports games are built? Without statistical variance there would be none of the fun and frustration that keeps us all coming back. If there was some supreme deity in Vegas that can tell us when a player will fall short of expectations, or exactly how many yards a player will rush for in any given week, we wouldn’t have a game to play.
Here’s one thing I know for sure – Vegas is really good at making money. If you would have tried to win $100 on each of the above props by betting the odds-on favorites, you would have lost $230. Trust me, Vegas has a very different motive when they set their odds than helping us with our fantasy football teams.