How the NFL Picks Experts Find Success
Pickwatch talked to the experts to see the methods behind their NFL Picks madness.
It’s always a good idea to get expert advice.
Before the 2021 NFL season kicks off, Pickwatch reached out to three of the best pickers in the game to see the methods behind their madness when it comes to picking NFL games. Since Pickwatch has been tracking NFL expert picks for the better part of a decade, it was easy to find the best of the very best.
When most people start picking NFL games, they’re usually able to pick about half the games correctly. If they’re really good (or really lucky), that number can climb. These guys are all among the best in the game, and following their advice will make anyone better.
Christian D’Andrea (69.8% pick accuracy) is a name familiar to the Pickwatch family, as he’s contributed content to the site before and his name has sat atop the leaderboards for a while. He’s an NFL writer at The Post Route. Michael David Smith (66.4%) is a name familiar to most NFL fans, as he’s been around the game forever and is the Managing Editor at ProFootballTalk. Finally, Jeremy Reisman (69.4%) of SBNation’s Pride of Detroit should absolutely be a name familiar to more because of the intelligent way he approaches the game—maybe one day, if the Lions get better.
How much time, per week or per matchup, do you spend on your picks?
Jeremy Reisman: Probably no longer than 15-30 minutes. Admittedly, a lot of my picks are based on gut feelings.
Michael David Smith: I spend very little time specifically on my picks because I spend so much time watching the game, looking at the stats, analyzing the matchups, etc., over the course of my work week that by the time I'm making the picks I feel like I have as good a handle on the two teams as I'm ever going to have.
Christian D’Andrea: It obviously depends on the matchup, but honestly I've found I'm at my best when I'm not overthinking matchups. The nice thing about being so plugged in to NFL news throughout the year is that my first instinct for a game typically pays off. If I wind up tinkering and replaying the pros/cons in my mind I've found I mess things up more often than not.
Analysis: Save your time for setting your daily fantasy lineups every week. Overthinking your picks is often where most of us mess up (double goes for me).
What is the first thing you find yourself evaluating when it comes to a specific matchup?
JR: First thing I look at is the Vegas line. I don't make many picks against the spread and no one is more accurate than Vegas. So if you're picking straight up, simply going with the Vegas favorite is a pretty easy way to be right.
MDS: Quarterbacks. I don't want to diminish the importance of every other position, but generally I feel like if I can answer the question, "Which team's quarterback will be better at exploiting the other team's defense?" then I know who I'm picking.
CD: Quarterback vs. defensive strengths typically plays a big role. Since passing offense plays such an outsized role in the NFL right now you can usually get a good feel for how a game will go based on a team's willingness to stretch the field weighed against pass rushing ability and the general talent level in the secondary.
Analysis: Generally, Vegas is a great place to start (good advice for NFL picks, maybe less so for marriages). Quarterback play is where the NFL bread is buttered, though. The media spends a lot of time hyping QB vs. QB matchups for a reason, but picks are more than storylines. Think QB vs. Defensive Coordinator first, and you’re well on your way.
What resources do you find yourself using regularly when it comes to making your picks?
JR: My favorite resource is Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. They measure each team's individual plays by success/failure rates while factoring in score, time of game, strength of opponent. If there's one all-encompassing statistic that I believe gives the best overall analysis of a team, I think it's DVOA. I also check out Vegas odds, and in instances when I'm still not very sure, I do enjoy looking at PFF's lineup matchups.
MDS: I like looking at the FootballOutsiders.com stats, specifically each starting quarterback's DVOA and each team's pass defense DVOA.
CD: Not many outside of Twitter and ESPN for injury news, but Football Outsiders does a pretty good job of creating schedule-adjusted efficiency stats that tend to be pretty helpful.
Analysis: It’s pretty clear, right? Football Outsiders is the site that you should be spending a bunch of time on—if you aren’t already. First, sign up for Pickwatch Pro, and then head on over there. You’ll thank me later.
Does anything specific serve as a tiebreaker of sorts when it comes to particularly tough picks?
JR: Tie usually goes to the home team, though that didn't serve as a particularly sound strategy for empty stadiums during COVID. I may also pick the team with the better record over the past three or four games if I'm stuck.
MDS: If I'm picking games straight-up and I don't have a good read on it, it's hard not to just go with who the Vegas odds favor.
CD: Homefield advantage is about to be more of a factor after (gestures broadly to the past year). Or maybe it's not because (gestures, exasperatedly, at the swelling pile of shit surrounding the Delta variant). Otherwise there's probably some unconscious bias that forces my brain, even in the toughest of matchups, to pick against the Cardinals. Maybe I prefer my coaches to look like humorless golems (Bill Belichick) or friendly ogres (Andy Reid).
Analysis: Shoutout to all the friendly ogres out there! It’ll be interesting to see if Homefield Advantage takes its rightful place again in 2021 or if there will be further deviation. When in doubt, it’s a great place to decide a pick you’ve been going back and forth on.
Do you find yourself developing favorites or self-identifying trends over the course of the season?
JR: I figure out around Week 6 or 7 every year that I should stop pretending to know anything about the NFC East. That division is impossible to predict on a day-by-day basis. I also tend to make fewer risks as the season goes on. Teams typically have an identity by late October, and you should be able to make more educated predictions by then.
MDS: I don't really see myself developing trends because I try to go into each week's picks with a fresh set of eyes.
CD: Man, I wish I had that kind of self-awareness. Like I said, when I overthink my win rate seems to go down in a noticeable way. With the results I've had the past couple years I think I'm gonna keep trusting my gut and the foundation of information that comes from covering the league year-round.
Analysis: My own personal trend is I tend to overthink more as the season progresses. I watch a lot of tape and tend to approach it as how coaches can exploit other coaches when really, “Team A” is just better than “Team B.” Take a look at your own potential trends and don't fall into any self-made midseason slumps.
Take MDS’s advice and go in each week fresh as if it were Week 1. From there, D’Andrea and Reisman both have it locked down—take less risks and trust your gut.
And, with Pickwatch’s help, that gut will get better and better as the season goes on.