LAS VEGAS — One year ago, the NFL Draft represented an oasis to bettors thirsty for something other than Belarussian table tennis or Nicaraguan soccer for action.
More than a month into a pandemic that nearly halted all sports on the planet and would shutter the city’s hotels and casinos for 11 weeks, unprecedented attention engulfed that virtual draft.
The physical draft, and the thousands of visitors and millions of dollars it generates annually to fortunate hosts, had been scheduled for Vegas, where the Raiders’ landing in a shiny new dome was to be feted in grand fashion.
All of that being canceled, however, socked the city with another gut punch.
“It was definitely a double whammy,” said Circa Sports operations manager Jeffrey Benson. “A lot of books were closed, and people were trying to get money in and bet these props. It was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Benson and his Circa colleagues provided curbside convenience for customers eager to register for the company’s mobile app and/or to fund those accounts, to wager on the 2020 draft from their couches.
The draft starts Thursday in Cleveland, and Las Vegas is on deck for next year. Last year’s fervor definitely has carried over to 2021. The NFL Draft is now much more than a novelty to Vegas sportsbooks.
“Even though that draft was virtual, we were able to place a huge emphasis on it because it was really the only sport or event outside of Russian Ping-Pong or Cactus Tour golf,” Benson said.
“Last year, our draft menu was more expansive than on a normal year. And I’d say, this year, we’ve taken it one step further. It’s probably the deepest menu of draft props that’s maybe ever been seen.”
A TACKLE WITH ATTITUDE
Circa’s draft proposition booklet is three pages, both sides covered with options. Many are player props, a draft spot where particular youngsters might be drafted, with corresponding Over and Under prices.
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts is 5½, an Over price of +140 (risk $100 to win $140), Under at -175. He will be of further interest to us.
Will the Bears’ first pick be an offensive lineman? Yes is +150, No -190. Who will draft Gators quarterback Kyle Trask? At +650, the Bears and Patriots are the favorites.
The two Circa options that had moved the most, Benson told me Tuesday, were Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond (draft position of 170½ to 91½) and Stanford quarterback Davis Mills (140½ to 68½).
“The player props on draft position are what we’ve written the most amount of tickets on,” Benson said. “Most of the moves we’ve taken early have been on Unders, with quarterbacks, and some wide receivers and offensive linemen.”
At No. 1, it’s a given that new Jaguars coach Urban Meyer will nab Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Of the insiders and former scouts with whom Long Island handicapper Tom Barton has spoken, many believe Lawrence possesses more talent, at this stage, than John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.
With the Bears, Barton is in an odd position. He gathers information, which he dispenses on his syndicated SportsGarten radio show and bets accordingly, with profit the sole aim for his clients and him. Yet, the native New Yorker also is a lifelong Bears fan, since Jim McMahon, Sweetness and the Fridge.
“I hope they pick an offensive lineman, a tackle with attitude” in the first round, Barton said. “It’s a deep wide receiver draft and I think they can wait on one of them. I want the offensive lineman.”
Barton bet Over ½ on running backs taken in the first round, so anyone who thinks one will be selected should follow suit. He’s confident both Najee Harris of Alabama and Travis Etienne of Clemson will be among the first 32 picks.
For first-round quarterbacks, William Hill has set 5½ as the number, Over at +350, Under -430. There’s Lawrence first, then — in no order, Barton said — Trey Lance (North Dakota State), Justin Fields (Ohio State), Mac Jones (Alabama) and Zach Wilson (BYU).
Barton is on Over, for another favored wager, as he predicts either Mills or Trask going in the first round.
The intriguing figure of the draft might be the Gators’ 6-6, 240-pound Pitts, whom Conner Streeter, the alias of a professional offshore bettor and former collegiate football player, calls “a freak athlete.”
In pondering why the 49ers moved up nine spots, to No. 3 overall, Streeter said this draft is not comprised of three generational quarterbacks. To guarantee getting one might justify dealing two future first-round picks and a third-rounder.
“That’s insane,” Streeter said, “unless you think you have identified a once-in-a-lifetime talent.”
Perhaps 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan does seek the draft’s third-best quarterback. But Streeter said maybe that generational figure is Pitts, who would pair with standout tight end George Kittle.
That could mirror the Patriots’ effective Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez scheme from 2010-12. Those Patriots won 39 of 48 regular-season games, but losing their lone Super Bowl.
With receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, Streeter envisions a dynamic double-team-proof receiving corps. Several outlets have Pitts going fourth to Atlanta, so Under 5½ on him presents another keen wager.
“Ridiculous talent,” Streeter said. “Maybe the Niners have positioned themselves to do something nobody would expect. Which, when you connect the dots, would be Pitts.”