Sannes' Win Total Projections: Initial Takeaways for 2021

The Dallas Cowboys get not only Dak Prescott back in 2021 but also key pieces along the offensive line. How does that impact their betting outlook?

Join me, friends, on what figures to be a wild, wild ride.

For the first time this offseason, I'm going to be building out my own win projections for the NFL in order to try to snag some value in the betting markets. There are a couple of reasons for this:

1. Betting win totals for a 17-game schedule was destined to break my brain.

2. I finally developed a spread projection model last year that I felt comfortable with.

3. Boredom.

Whenever something significant changes, I'll be hopping back on this mighty fine website and detailing how it impacted my projected win totals. The ripple effects of quarterback movement are felt across the spectrum, so regular check-ins will -- hopefully! -- be extra necessary.

The model revolves heavily around projected passing efficiency. This isn't just because quarterback play is so important but also because passing efficiency is far stickier than defensive numbers. The correlation between each team's offensive passing efficiency (based on numberFire's schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points metric, also known as NEP) in 2019 and 2020 was 0.549. On the defensive side, it was 0.338. There's a reason we see the same signal-callers in the Super Bowl each year while the league's best defensive unit changes by the minute.

Eventually, I'll get around to actually just showing you the win projections in the interest of full transparency (and so you can clown me on Twitter when I'm inevitably wrong). For now, though, we're going to stick to broad discussions.

That's because it's hard to do full win projections when we don't know the full schedule yet. The blueprint for setting each team's 17th game hasn't yet been announced, so we don't know who will play whom and where yet. We do know the other 16 opponents, though, and the locations, so we can at least get a start and see what that means for the markets currently available.

So, I've got the win projections for those 16 set games done now. We'll check back in later as additional moves are made, but for now, here were some initial takeaways for me.

1. It's Time to Believe in the Cowboys... Again

No question about it: I'm ready to get hurt again.

I was in on the Dallas Cowboys last year. The NFC East looked pretty soft, and they had Dak Prescott. What could go wrong?

The answer was everything! And yet they still could have made the playoffs in Week 17!

Now, not only is Prescott back, but so are tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, who played a combined 154 snaps last year. The defense finished 26th in numberFire's schedule-adjusted defensive passing efficiency, but they improved as the season went along, and again, that's not super predictive of what they'll do next year.

The schedule is a big boon for the Cowboys. Although they're just 10th in my power rankings, they wind up fifth in the win totals projection. No other NFC East team ranks higher than 24th in the power rankings. This makes the Cowboys a worthwhile bet at -105 to win the NFC East at FanDuel Sportsbook. Things aren't as definitive on the Super Bowl side as they'll need to hit the high end of their defensive range of outcomes, but a forgiving number of +2900 there keeps them from being a crossoff.

2. Don't Sleep on the 49ers

Before you go all-in on the early offseason darlings, beware that the San Francisco 49ers are lurking.

Over the past two seasons, Jimmy Garoppolo has finished 8th and 11th, respectively, in Passing NEP per drop back among passers with at least 100 drop backs. This does not necessarily mean Garoppolo is some super-underrated passer. Rather, it shows that the scheme here is good, and the players around the quarterback can support an efficient offense. That's valuable.

As of now, we don't know who will start at quarterback for this team. But even with that uncertainty, it's fair to project them to be an above-average unit, which is what they were last year even with significant playing time from Nick Mullens. The floor is good, and there's room for growth.

There is uncertainty on the defense with Robert Saleh gone and the entire secondary hitting free agency. But any improvements on offense could counteract those losses.

Unfortunately, the betting markets are aware of this. The 49ers are +1400 to win the Super Bowl and +200 to win the NFC West. It's tough to get behind those numbers. But it does help lower enthusiasm around the Los Angeles Rams even with Matthew Stafford in town, and it puts a dent in the outlook of another team out west. Speaking of which...

3. The Cardinals Need Additional Help

JJ Watt is an exciting add for the Arizona Cardinals. He helps offset the likely loss of Haason Reddick and brings some pizzazz to this defense.

They've still got holes to fill, though.

Specifically, the offense needs extra juice. The Cardinals finished last year ranked 19th in schedule-adjusted passing efficiency. They lacked big-play options so much that Dan Arnold kinda sorta became their field-stretcher the final month and a half. Not ideal!

For Arizona compete in the NFC West, they need to be borderline flawless. The other three teams are all in the top eight in my power rankings, and that's unlikely to change unless Russell Wilson does a one-two step out of Seattle. This means the Cardinals had better prioritize finding a downfield threat via free agency and the draft or else we're going to be scoping the under on their win total in a few months.

4. The Falcons... Might Not Suck?

The Atlanta Falcons are weirdly in a fun position. They're drafting fourth overall, meaning they'll likely get a swipe at one of the hyper-fun quarterbacks in this year's class. That allows them to build toward the future. But the present ain't too shabby, either.

Most of this is because of the passing offense. The Falcons ranked 14th there for the full season even with Julio Jones being in and out of the lineup. It seems like all of Jones, Matt Ryan, and Calvin Ridley will be back, so they're going to move the ball again.

The defense really turned a corner, too, and they finished 15th in overall schedule-adjusted efficiency. We might not want to project that again for 2021 with Raheem Morris going to the Rams, but they're definitely better than perception.

This is not something we should act on immediately. Even at +950 to win the NFC South, it's hard to get jazzed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers still lingering. But once win totals do come out, this seems like a prime team on which to snag an over.