If you bet enough NFL games, after a certain amount of time, you'll be able to get pretty good at predicting betting lines. I have a Sunday night tradition of guessing the lines for the next weekend of games and then comparing my guesses to the lines posted by oddsmakers.
In my projections, I had the Seattle Seahawks as 3-point road favorites over the Pittsburgh Steelers. My jaw hit the floor when I saw the Steelers were 4.5-point favorites at home at BetMGM. Then I remembered that after a crazy day of football, Russell Wilson's injury slipped my mind for a second.
This led to me speculating that Russell Wilson is worth around a touchdown on the betting line for the Seahawks. In order to confirm my suspicion and quench my thirst for more information, I reached out to Tristan Davis, one of the traders at BetMGM. Davis offered some valuable information as to how an oddsmaker handles injuries to various quarterbacks and other positions of note.
Wilson is amongst the most valuable quarterbacks
Russell Wilson is obviously one of the very best quarterbacks in the league. Most lists would have him in or just outside the top five of signal callers in the NFL. He's obviously being held back by the conservative nature of the Seahawks but he still produces highlight-reel plays and gaudy stats.
On the other hand, Geno Smith hasn't been a starting NFL quarterback since 2014 when he failed in his attempt to be the Jets' franchise quarterback. Smith might have more of a pedigree and track history than most backup quarterbacks, but we can also safely assume he's not very good.
"Wilson to Smith is a very big downgrade. In terms of his backup, yes I would say this is one of the biggest differences in a starting QB to a backup. Wilson has clearly proved himself over a long period of time now," Davis said.
Davis also said that the original line for the Steelers-Seahawks matchup was set to open with Seattle as a 2.5-point road favorite. This would suggest that Wilson is worth about seven points with the current line having the Seahawks as a 4.5-point road underdog. Davis did point out that a bit of that change was also due to Pittsburgh's improved performance against Denver in Week 5.
To put into context just how valuable Wilson is to the point spread, Davis said that Wilson's injury is comparable to an injury to Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers. He said the seven-point downgrade would be in line with what we'd see if Kansas City was forced to start Chad Henne or the Packers needed to start Jordan Love.
Are all quarterbacks this valuable?
Now that we know the elite quarterbacks are worth about a touchdown to the spread, what about the lesser quarterbacks?
We've seen our share of backup quarterbacks start games already this season. Taylor Heinicke replaced the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick during Week 1. Tua Tagovailoa, Andy Dalton and Jimmy Garoppolo have been replaced by Jacoby Brissett, Justin Fields and Trey Lance, respectively.
Tristan Davis said these changes "cause very little line movement." He responded specifically to the situation for the Washington Football Team, saying, "I did not make any adjustment to Heinicke vs. Fitzpatrick when that announcement came through. That can change week to week pending on Heinicke, or how any other backup QB does based on performance."
This all makes sense. You're replacing a mediocre quarterback with a lesser-known quarterback that you have less information on. As that information comes in, you adjust based on what you've seen from the quarterback. But it's hard to downgrade a team too much when quarterback play wasn't ever a strength to begin with.
Davis also keyed in on the line movement surrounding Trey Lance last week. San Francisco went from a four-point underdog to a six-point underdog during the week, but Davis said that was more of a result of the public being all over the undefeated Cardinals rather than a referendum of the oddsmakers' thoughts on Lance.
"This one was tough. Usually, the public would love Trey Lance but the problem is they were playing the undefeated Arizona Cardinals. Public will ride that spot until they lose just like they did on Sunday. It opened four and was bet up to six. We saw some sharp money for SF late Saturday and early Sunday but the public drove that right up just before kickoff."
What about non-quarterback injuries?
In the fantasy football world, we are conditioned to think that players like Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook are the most valuable football players on the planet. However, it didn't appear that the Panthers' or Vikings' odds were impacted much by the absence of these players over recent weeks.
Davis said that these game-changing talents do have some impact on the spread, but it's very minimal and it's on a downward trajectory. With football evolving, it seems like scheme might be just as important as the actual talent at positions. The recent trend of throwing the football at an even higher clip has also lessened the impact of bell-cow running backs.
Davis did feel the need to clarify his statement and suggested that Titans running back Derrick Henry might have a more profound impact on the betting line should he ever miss a game. Henry's talent is not near replaceable and the whole offense is based around him, so he might be the most valuable skill position player in terms of betting lines.
I also asked Davis about injuries to non-skill position players and defensive players. He said injuries to those positions make nearly no impact on a betting line unless there's a long list of injuries at the same position. For example, if a team is missing three offensive linemen or both starting cornerbacks, oddsmakers might start taking notice. A single injury won't move the needle much, even if it's someone as valuable as Packers CB Jaire Alexander.