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How an Expert NFL Bettor Prepares for a New Season

Fabian Sommer of Football Handicapping takes Boardroom behind the scenes as he gears up for another year of NFL betting.

When a wholly inebriated Tom Brady tossed the Lombardi trophy from a boat in downtown Tampa on Feb. 10, it was the last entertaining act of an unusual but exciting 2021 NFL season. It was time to put the campaign in the rearview mirror.

For many people, including myself, it was already time to start preparing for a new year.

I would define myself as a semi-professional sports bettor. (The unconditional term “professional” might be a tiny bit disrespectful to the people who do the daily betting grind for several sports on 350 plus days a year.) I only handicap the NFL and don’t care about other sports. I make a living running a subscription service for my picks and football content —and this might sound like a lame phrase, but preparation is everything.

Between the Super Bowl and the NFL draft, I only do some light work. I enjoy going to bed earlier – I’m from Germany, and the six-hour time difference can take a toll on your sleep rhythm over five months – and read some books.

But some work just needs to be done.

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The key for me is to figure out a team’s accurate performance level from the season prior, so I can watch how the 32 NFL teams evolve throughout the off-season – how they attack their strengths and weaknesses. A team’s record is largely irrelevant. We need to look at this in several contexts:

  • What was their schedule?
  • How many injuries did they have?
  • How much good or bad luck was involved?
  • What stable or unstable parts led to them winning games?

Let’s use the Cleveland Browns as an example: Some people have pointed out their lousy 7.7 Pythagorean wins during the offseason, a metric that once was the gold standard for seasonal regression methods. 7.7 is a poor number for a team that made the divisional round, but the Browns played three bad weather games against the Raiders, Texans, and Eagles, with heavy winds that made it hard to throw the ball at all.

On top of that, they played with practice squad wide receivers against the Jets due to COVID protocols. Their No. 1 wide receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr., tore his ACL in Week 7, too.

Three of those opponents had a top-six draft pick, and the Browns finished that stretch with a combined scoring differential of -9.

Counterfactual: how would those games have panned out under optimal conditions? Cleveland still finished fourth in EPA/P (Expected Points Added per Play, neutral game state) and ninth in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) offensively. But that data cannot (fully) capture the poor conditions of those four matchups. That’s something we have to adjust for when thinking about their proper performance level from 2021. And their defense looked better, too.

After betting some draft props, the real grind begins in May. I spend several hours on weekdays researching each of the 32 teams. I write previews on each squad for my subscribers, tackling strengths, weaknesses, regression angles, and ranges of outcomes for the upcoming season.

It’s not just a selling point — writing such a preview helps me articulate my thoughts, and it forces me to dig deeper into some details and nuances. 

Talking to other football nerds every day helps me shape my thoughts, too. When I drive in the car or hit the gym, I listen to podcasts, trying to get different perspectives and catch certain information nuggets that might be valuable down the stretch. “The Athletic Football Show” with Robert Mays comes to mind. I use resources like Pro Football Focus religiously. Studying the Football Outsiders Almanac is a no-brainer every ear. The 32 team chapters are very well written, and in each of those, you can find some nuggets that you might have missed or haven’t recognized yet.

Overall, Twitter is probably the best resource out there because every beat reporter tries his best to keep his audience informed – even though you consistently have to sift through the signal and the noise. Pre-season performances are boisterous, but it’s essential to monitor injury situations and the progress of different units. I watch every first half of pre-season games in rewind – most notably the series when the starters are on the field.

It’s very difficult to beat NFL betting markets. You need to be one step ahead as often as possible. 

Many roads lead to Rome, but it’s all about matchups for me when it comes to handicapping NFL sides and totals. I use some modeling, many advanced stats, and a Power Rating to originate my own number on a game, but the critical part is handicapping the matchup on the field and applying subjective knowledge and context.

Every matchup is different, and we’re dealing with non-linearities all the time. 

Come Week 1, you need to be willing to adjust quickly. You’ll want to know how offensive coordinators might attack the opposing defense. You need to have a clue about the impact of an injured player before he misses a third straight practice and eventually gets ruled out. When an impact player returns from injury in Week 10, you need to know how to adjust the underlying data of recent team performances against a specific schedule without said player.

My job is to out-prepare a fair share of the market to bet into the best possible numbers.

The game is always changing. But preparation is still everything.