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Massive Early NFL Draft Odds Movement Highlights New Challenge for Bookmakers

Carl Carchia for Bookies.com

Carl Carchia  | 12 mins

Massive Early NFL Draft Odds Movement Highlights New Challenge for Bookmakers

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Life comes at you fast.

We’ve probably all seen those memes floating around the internet. No one relates more to them these days than NFL betting oddsmakers trying to set NFL Draft lines. After all, NFL Draft betting is a market that wasn’t even offered at sportsbooks in Vegas until 2017.

Now, with regulated sports betting washing over the U.S., you no longer need to be in Vegas to legally bet the NFL Draft – all you need is a sports betting app. It’s proving to be a game-changer in the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game between bettors and bookies.

There’s no more evidence of this than the story of Ikem Ekwonu. Ekwonu, at the time a relatively under-the-radar offensive tackle from N.C. State, saw his NFL futures odds to be selected first overall go from 100-1 to 5-1 in a 24-hour span - in the middle of the NFL playoffs!

Yes, people were betting the NFL Draft heavily immediately before the following Divisional Round matchups took place: Tom Brady’s potentially last game – ever - against the Rams, Aaron Rodgers’ potentially last game with the Packers and the eventual AFC champion Bengals’ matchup against the Titans.

“That was odd,” said David Purdum, who as ESPN's top betting writer since 2014, has written extensively about NFL Draft betting. “I don’t recall anything to that degree that early in the process.”

That specific story is why, as Purdum notes, “sportsbooks hate booking the draft.”

Massive Early NFL Draft Odds Movement Highlights New Challenge for Bookmakers 1
Ikem Ekwonu's odds to be selected first overall jumped dramatically in a 24-hour span during the NFL Playoffs, highlighting a new world in terms of NFL Draft betting.

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‘One of the most difficult things we do’

“From a bookmaker’s perspective, handicapping the NFL Draft is one of the most difficult things that we do,” said legendary bookmaker Johnny Avello, the Director of Race & Sportsbook Operations at DraftKings (the book that moved Ekwonu’s odds).

NFL Draft betting is the one market where the bettors have a leg up on the bookmakers. Not that we should shed a collective tear for the sportsbooks, mind you. After all, sportsbooks wiped the floor with bettors in November.

Fast forward to April and the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. Ekwonu’s jump (he’s settled at 12-1 to go first as of mid-April) highlights the volatility of the NFL Draft - and the NFL Draft betting market, now that sports betting is widely regulated in the U.S.

“The reason sportsbooks don’t like booking the NFL Draft," Purdum explains, "is because there’s this massive amount of information that, I don’t want to say it’s 100% correct all the time, but it’s more concrete than guessing on whether a quarterback will be playing this week."

Complicating things this year is the uncertainty at the top (already we've seen Travon Walker jump from +220 to go first overall last week to -165 at DraftKings, ahead of Aidan Hutchinson).

Add in a whirlwind of an offseason that has left an unprecedented eight teams with TWO first-round picks - or put another way, a quarter of the entire league - and it's a perfect recipe for chaose to ensue.

The Jaguars have given the impression in the past few weeks that even they don't know what they'll do (it were were almost any team but the Jaguars it would feel like a smoke screen). One thing is for sure, they aren't taking a QB at No. 1. Heck, we might be waiting longer than normal for the first quarterback to come off the board.

After all, only a handful of teams need a signal caller after a headspinning offseason of QB movement. Not to mention, this one of the weaker QB draft classes in recent memory (DraftKings has the first-round QBs taken Over/Under set at 2.5).

RELATED: Jacksonville Jaguars NFL Draft Odds For 2022

Instead, wide receivers are now at a premium. The 2022 NFL Draft has them in spades (the Over/Under is 5.5 receivers taken in the first round, per FanDuel).

The Saints, Packers and Chiefs all need wide receivers, and each has two first-round picks to address that need. The Cowboys also could opt for a wide receiver after trading Amari Cooper to the Browns. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the NFL Draft's ultimate wild card, reportedly would like to trade up from the 24th pick.

It’s a notion that shouldn’t be taken lightly: Jones treats the NFL Draft like his personal game of Chutes and Ladders. Just last year, Jones traded down - with the rival Eagles of all teams - and grabbed Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons.

All of that is to say this: Sifting through all the rumors and news updates to decipher the first round – and beyond – is significantly more complex than setting a line for a run-of-the-mill Week 3 Bills vs. Jets contest.

"NFL Draft handicapping isn’t just staying up on injuries (like the NFL season)," said Nick Kostos, professional bettor and host of the BetQL podcast You Better, You Bet. “It’s entirely based off information. Which mock drafters are plugged in? Who has sources? It kind of gives you a leg up.

“There’s numerous examples of information getting out there and the books might be the last ones to get it. Eventually there will be some smartening up, but I do feel like we are still in the Wild, Wild West when it comes to NFL Draft betting,” Kostos said.

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Out of Their Comfort Zone

It’s the Wild, Wild West and the quickest to draw information from Twitter wins. This “specialty” market is based solely on the 24-hour news cycle, mock drafts, message boards and Twitter feeds, which puts oddsmakers like Avello out of their comfort zone.

Avello has, for decades, been perfecting the craft of handicapping games. He has his power ratings, algorithms and his intuition. He also has a massive team of traders ready to help react to injury news.

But the NFL Draft is “a whole different type of thing.”

Avello says he and his team (and many other bookmakers) can’t always react in real time to every new mock draft, or tweet from Adam Schefter describing the latest top receiver to hold a pre-draft meeting with an NFL team.

That’s especially true in the spring when they’re busy booking the NCAA Tournament, the NBA regular season, NHL games, and of course, The Masters.

Avello slightly downplayed the notion that it’s harder because of widespread legalization, but joked: “We (DraftKings) are in 18 states, so it’s 18 times harder.”

The veteran bookmaker says the NFL Draft market, by its nature, removes from sportsbooks one of the biggest advantages it has over most bettors.

“It’s not like we can use our power ratings to tell us who the better team is,” Avello said. "It’s all about information and we have to stay on top of that information.”

Keeping up with the constant news updates can be challenging, Avello admits, but he and his team adapt quickly when the situation calls for it.

The legendary bookmaker, who got his start writing betting tickets in casinos in the 70's, says he and his team were “setting NCAA Tournament numbers (lines) when we found out Tom Brady was playing football this year.”

Still, the fact of the matter is books can’t react quick enough sometimes, and that’s where bettors take advantage. Any “sharp” (see: professional bettor), or recreational bettor, with a smartphone and enough time to read can stay one step ahead of the market.

Massive Early NFL Draft Odds Movement Highlights New Challenge for Bookmakers 2
The question of who will 'Take The Stage' this year is more uncertain than ever, which benefits bettors looking for value.

In fact, right around the time Ekwonu’s odds moved, The Athletic had its latest mock draft out with the offensive tackle as a “surprise” No. 1 pick.

“Oddsmakers are at a disadvantage,” Purdum said. “They only have so many people that can monitor every tweet out there and adjust the lines accordingly. That’s why a lot of books don’t put out lines until closer to the draft. They can’t monitor it all.

“If they had a choice, they probably would not offer betting on the NFL Draft, but they realize there’s some demand for it.”

As the Ekwonu story illustrates, the demand is certainly there.

The NFL odds swing could have been caused by Joe Public reading the latest mock draft from The Athletic on its collective lunch break, or it could have been a pro bettor with a source close to the Jaguars. More likely, it was both. Purdum says it was likely “a flurry of very small bets, and at 100-1 odds, they wanted to move it very quickly.”

Avello admitted he didn’t recall that type of early interest in NFL Draft betting in the past, but “anybody who’s betting that far out is on the sharper side of things.”

Purdum also noted it's a "sharp market," however, it seems clear this is a unique story, and one that probably doesn’t happen without widespread legalized betting and massive interest in the NFL Draft.

The bottom line is this: There are now exponentially more "sharp" bettors in the sports betting waters and even the slightest bit of interest from the public is going to create market volatility.

The Night NFL Draft Betting Went Mainstream

NFL Draft betting interest exploded in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which erased live sports from the betting menu.

Reuters reported that BetRivers in New Jersey took three times more wagers on the first night of the 2020 draft than it did on the entire 2019 draft. PointsBet said it took more than eight times as many bets as the previous year.

Sure, the NFL Draft has been available to bet offshore for years, but bettors are likely more eager to throw down cash now that they know it’s safely regulated, and they’ll get paid out before next Christmas. There hasn't been much data available to back this theory, but the American Gaming Association reported a 25% decrease in spend with "illegal bookies" in 2020 and the biggest reason was "confidence that bets will be paid out."

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Numbers aren’t disclosed by sportsbooks but the pre-draft estimates pegged that between $5-$20 million would be wagered on the 2020 NFL Draft. The high end of that range would be roughly four times as much as the “handle” on the 2019 NFL Draft.

What’s more, it was reported in the days leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft that it would break the 2020 handle record.

Bookmakers in the U.S. are now finding out what their offshore counterparts have known for years: Offer NFL Draft markets at your own risk (some sportsbooks still refuse to offer odds on the draft and some states have banned it).

Ekwonu’s surprisingly early, massive odds movement highlights a new reality.

Purdum said big line movement on NFL Draft betting happens at offshore books, but added, “Before the Super Bowl? I do think that is a little unique and I think we’ll continue to see things like that, because as I said: It’s an information-based market. Whoever gets the information is going to win."

Have Phone, Will Bet

It’s obvious to see why, as Purdum says, this type of betting action will continue to happen: more people accessing NFL Draft information also have access to mobile sports betting.

In four years since the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, regulated sports betting has rapidly expanded across the U.S. In the past 12 months, 11 new states have legalized sports betting in some form (retail or online).

Americans can now legally bet in 30 states, plus Washington D.C., according to the American Gaming Association, and more markets are on the way.

Infographic: The State of Sports Betting in the U.S. | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

Morning Consult, a data intelligence company, found that Americans wagered more than $52.7 billion in 2021. The same study showed 18 percent of adults 21 or older - or roughly 35 million people – bet on sports at least once a month.

The majority of people bet sports from their phones. Nineteen states now offer mobile betting after New York and Louisiana launched in early 2022 (NFL Draft betting is banned in the Empire State, the former home of the draft).

Millions of people can now switch from reading the latest draft news on Twitter, right to their FanDuel app to place a bet.

“If Daniel Jeremiah releases a mock draft, he’s by all accounts the most plugged-in media member in terms of NFL front offices, that’s probably going to move the market,” Kostos said.

That’s the scenario that occurred last year. Trey Lance was a surprise pick at No. 3 after the entire sports world was convinced the 49ers were taking Alabama’s Mac Jones in that slot.

Well, it wasn’t a surprise pick to some.

Purdum reported that Lance was 15-1 to go No. 3 earlier in the process, but massive betting began taking hold after Jeremiah told “The Pat McAfee Show” his sources were saying the Niners would pick Lance. Lance quickly moved from long-shot territory to the favorite to go No. 3.

Massive Early NFL Draft Odds Movement Highlights New Challenge for Bookmakers 3
Trey Lance being selected at No. 3 by San Francisco was a surprise pick to some, but not to bettors who were paying attention to the latest news.

“There are so many people around Trey or the 49ers, an agent, friends of an agent – the information gets out,” Purdum said.

Professionals like Kostos, who had a “really large bet” on Lance to go third overall, are ready to pounce when that happens.

And while Kostos said that betting the NFL Draft poses a “different challenge” for him as well, he acknowledges pros like him are far from the only ones who enjoy it.

“All my friends bet the draft,” Kostos said. “The NFL is king. It’s by far the No. 1 thing. This is a major event, and you can bet on it. It’s only going to grow.”

That makes life harder for bookmakers like Avello, who sums it up best by saying: “In this particular instance, I would move the needle towards the bettor. It’s been tough for us to make money in the draft.”

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About the Author

Carl Carchia for Bookies.com
Carl Carchia
An editor for Bookies.com, Carl has 15 years’ experience covering sports (and sports betting) during stops at PA SportsTicker, NBC, ESPN, CBS, among others. Carl has been embedded in the sports gambling scene for two decades and loves that CT now has regulated betting.