It’s a situation every sports bettor has faced before: You’re ready to place a bet on an NFL game, but the starting quarterback is questionable and you’re waiting to see if he can play. Just how good is that backup QB from the school you’ve never heard of? Is the starter worth a field goal more against the spread? A touchdown more?
Knowing the point spread difference between a starting QB and a backup can immensely help bettors recognize value bets before the game if a QB change is made — and provide a cheat sheet to take advantage of in-game opportunities if a starting QB gets injured.
As casual sports bettors’ knowledge has grown with expanded legalization, it’s more widely known that only a starting QB injury is going to significantly move the point spread for an NFL game — with rare exceptions for a few skill players like Justin Jefferson or Tyreek Hill.
When a QB change is made before the game, how do oddsmakers determine the adjustment to the point spread?
It’s a nuanced answer in every case, and reliant on a variety of factors, including:
The original spread and how close it is to a key number (3,4,6,7,10, etc.)
Starting QB’s overall talent level
The quality of the backup QB
The uniqueness of the QB to the success of the offensive scheme
The overall strength of the team
When my former ESPN colleague Doug Kezirian did this exercise five years ago, he asked Ed Salmons, VP of risk at SuperBook Sports, to do the rankings.
Aaron Rodgers was No. 1, a full eight points better ATS than his backup (DeShone Kizer). Patrick Mahomes was in the second tier (+5 points ATS over Chad Henne). And Eli Manning was only 0.5 points better than backup Alex Tanney. Ouch, Eli.
The next year at ESPN, I repeated the exercise, using Salmons and Jeff Davis (then a director of trading at Caesars, now assistant sportsbook manager at Circa Sports). Rodgers again was atop the rankings, worth 9.75 points more against the spread than backup Tim Boyle.
But in order to get a true picture of how oddsmakers think, I went much bigger this year: I asked eight oddsmakers around the U.S. to rank the difference in the point spread if the starter and backup were playing at home against a league-average team, and both players were fully healthy.
The results should give bettors (and NFL fans) plenty to talk about, and whether they agree or disagree, provide a reference point for bettors to work off of this season.
Here is how many points every starting NFL QB is worth against the spread compared to their backups. I’ve broken the list down in into five distinct tiers:
The Established Starters (and Justin Fields)
The Arizona Cardinals
1. Patrick Mahomes (7.56 points ATS)
T-2. Josh Allen (6.75)
T-2. Joe Burrow (6.75)
4. Justin Herbert (6.69)
5. Aaron Rodgers (5.75)
It’s no surprise that Mahomes, now a two-time Super Bowl champion, is atop this list. There isn’t much he can’t do on a football field, and Kansas City’s current backup QB is Blaine Gabbert. Regardless of backup QB, oddsmakers agreed that Mahomes was the most valuable player to the point spread in the NFL this season.
“If he’s healthy, he’s the worth more than any other QB by at least a point,” one oddsmaker said. “You can look at the MVP odds and how much he matters. It’s a no-brainer to have him No. 1. There’s no other QB like him with his style of play and talent.”
“Kansas City has a solid team,” another oddsmaker said. “But Mahomes is the top QB. The guy is phenomenal and has the stats and rings to prove it.”
6. Lamar Jackson (5.19)
7. Deshaun Watson (5.00)
T-8. Justin Fields (4.94)
T-8. Jalen Hurts (4.94)
T-8. Matthew Stafford (4.94)
11. Trevor Lawrence (4.56)
12. Kirk Cousins (4.50)
13. Dak Prescott (4.19)
14. Russell Wilson (4.00)
There is a lot to break down in this tier, but Fields, Hurts and Wilson really stand out for different reasons.
For Fields, a lot of his ranking has to do with the fact that D-II QB Tyson Bagent is now his backup, as opposed to PJ Walker (or as one oddsmaker said when I followed up for a new ranking once Walker was released, “Who!?”)
Fields had a range of rankings from 8 points ATS from one oddsmaker, all the way down to 2.5.
“I basically need to see more,” an oddsmaker told me when describing where he had Fields ranked. “I’m not super high on him coming into this season. I’m hoping to see some good things as a pocket passer. Right now I have him rated just above Jordan Love and Desmond Ridder, to be honest.”
Another oddsmaker was higher on Fields, noting the public’s support of the Bears this offseason.
“Look at the way people are jumping on the Bears,” he said. “I think a lot of people are thinking Fields can make a Hurts-like jump this year. Those guys that are dual threats bring a lot to the table as far as their value to the team.”
Perhaps the most polarizing QB among bookmakers was how to properly rate Hurts. The Philadelphia star was a fascinating case study, as two bookmakers — both fans of the Eagles — had wildly differing takes on the QB. One had him rated as 2.5 points more valuable than backup Marcus Mariota; the other had Hurts a full TD better.
From one: “I only have 2.5 on Hurts because Mariota is competent. The team is so solid, it’s not like he has to go in there and do a lot.”
From the other: “I’m an Eagles fan and I’m not sold on Mariota. Mariota has been around, but Hurts is dynamic, he can do it both running and passing. Some people think he may have to prove it a few more years, but from what I saw last year it’s hard to argue he isn’t as valuable as those guys. Hurts easily could’ve been the MVP last season.”
A third bookmaker had a rating of 3.5 points for Hurts, saying, “Mariota is one of the better backups in the league and there’s some recency bias with Hurts. Is he going to do that again? If the Eagles open -10 at home with Hurts and he’s hurt, it’s not re-opened back at -4. That’s ridiculous.”
And finally with Russell Wilson, it’s a question of whether last season was a one-year aberration due to a new environment combined with poor coaching. Or was it the first steps in a steep decline for the formerly elite QB?
Oddsmakers had a variety of opinions on him as well.
“I’ve gone back and forth a lot on Wilson, especially this offseason,” an oddsmaker noted. “I definitely downgraded him based on his performance last year, but I’ve erred on the side of being conservative and how much was due to Hackett vs. Wilson. I still think we may see some good things out of him with Sean Payton. I’m not super high on Jarrett Stidham as well.”
“I think Wilson is going to be one of the stories of the year,” a different oddsmaker believed. “We’ll see pretty early if last year was an aberration, as what we saw last year was pretty rough. The Broncos had the hype last year and it didn’t work out … [it was] a disaster from the get-go. Upgrade in the coaching department with Payton.”
15. Tua Tagovailoa (3.56)
16. Jimmy Garoppolo (3.50)
T-17. Ryan Tannehill (3.44)
T-17. Geno Smith (3.44)
19. Jared Goff (2.88)
20. Daniel Jones (2.75)
21. Jordan Love (2.50)
22. Mac Jones (2.13)
23. Brock Purdy (2.06)
24. Derek Carr (1.94)
25. Kenny Pickett (1.88)
26. Baker Mayfield (1.75)
27. Desmond Ridder (0.13)
One of the more interesting QBs in this tier is Geno Smith, whom one oddsmaker was convinced is being overrated.
“I see the Seahawks every week and I don’t think he’s as good as people are saying,” he told me the regression is going to come for him. I think it was a fluky year to be honest. He does have great wide receivers, but I don’t think he’s worth [a FG]. Give Drew Lock those weapons and he’d do just fine.”