Projecting 2021 Playoff Teams: Who’s In? Cowboys. Who’s Out? Saints

Since 2015, an average of six teams that missed the playoffs one year made it the next. Last season, the Steelers, Browns, Colts, Football Team, Buccaneers and Bears were the 2019 non-playoff teams that reached the postseason (granted, they did expand the playoffs to fit in two additional teams).

So far, we’ve highlighted three teams that will miss the playoffs that made it last season and three teams that will make the playoffs that missed it last year. For the last two stories in this series, we will be highlighting teams that we feel are far more unlikely to miss/make the playoffs but are possibilities. That said, it does appear to us that some 2020 playoff teams did more to improve themselves than did many non-playoff teams. So this season could feature less new faces in the playoffs than usual.

Part 1: Dolphins in, Bears out

Part 2: Cardinals in, Steelers out

Part 3: Chargers in, Titans out


Miss the Playoffs: New Orleans Saints

In 2020, the New Orleans Saints were one of the best teams in the NFL, finishing with a 12-4 record despite an injury to starting QB Drew Brees for the second consecutive season. The Saints ranked fifth in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Despite major issues getting the ball downfield, with Brees tying for his lowest yards per attempt since 2010 and backup Taysom Hill having an even lower yards per attempt mark, the Saints rode Alvin Kamara on offense. Last season, they were fifth in the NFL in red zone TD percentage, which was of prime importance to their success as an offense considering their struggles passing the ball. The defense was one of the best against the run (fourth in rushing yards allowed and fourth in yards per attempt), while they capitalized on opportunities with 18 interceptions forced, the most in the NFL.

Heading into 2021, Brees has retired and they will decide between Hill (who averaged only 7.32 yards/attempt in his starts but posted a 3-1 record) and Jameis Winston, who had the most INTs thrown in a regular season since 1988 in his last showing as a starter. Either will be a major downgrade from Brees – even the late-career edition – as neither is on his level in terms of decision-making or intelligence.

Since WR Michael Thomas has been in the league, the Saints have struggled to find him a complement at WR2. Last season, they had Emmanuel Sanders at WR2 and found production from TE Jared Cook in the passing game. Unfortunately, the Saints top three playmakers barely saw the field together, with Thomas’ injury that lost him nine total games. This offseason, they lost Sanders and Cook and are left with no established WR2 or TE1. No matter who they name the starting QB, there will be fewer weapons in the passing game than in 2020 despite the presence of Thomas and Kamara.

The Saints defense should continue as a top 10 entity in the league despite new faces and subtractions this offseason. New Orleans lost their starting MLB, LCB, NT and RDE in free agency, but have talented backups and new faces that should lighten the loss. With these losses, they will have to replace 24 years of NFL experience. They drafted DE Payton Turner, LB Pete Werner and CB Paulson Adebo in the first three rounds, all of whom should see snaps early in Year 1.


To Make: -115

To Miss: +106


Make the Playoffs: Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys came into 2020 with playoff hopes behind one of the best offenses in football. After drafting CeeDee Lamb in the first round of the 2020 draft, the Cowboys put together one of, if not the best group of offensive weapons in all of football: Amari Cooper, Lamb and Michael Gallup with Ezekiel Elliott at RB. Their season was derailed due to countless injuries to major components of their team, including the majority of their OL and QB Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury in Week 5. Through the first five weeks of the season, despite facing three playoff teams, the Prescott-led Cowboys averaged 32.6 points per game. Yet, they only won two of those five, both wins coming against non-playoff foes. The issue for the Cowboys before and after Prescott’s injury was their defense. They allowed an average of 36 points per game in the first 5 weeks and the 28th most points for the entire season.

With a healthy Prescott returning, the Cowboys should again have a top-tier offensive unit. They had three receivers total over 840 yards each with Andy Dalton and Ben DiNucci as the primary quarterbacks at different points. And Prescott averaged almost two times the amount of passing yards per game as Dalton in their starts (371.2 to 197.3).

On offense, the other major issue for Dallas was the health of their OL. Injuries included: LT Tyron Smith, centers Joe Looney and Tyler Biadasz, RT La’el Collins, as well as backups Mitch Hyatt and Cameron Erving. In total, the first and second string OL missed a total of 70 games.

A healthy OL would not only help the 17th-ranked run game in total rushing yards from 2020 improve, but will also allow for more time to throw down field. Last season, the Cowboys QBs had the seventh-shortest time to throw (2.55 seconds). With the injuries along the OL, the running game struggled (23rd in yards per attempt, 4.2). With inefficiency in the run game came the lack of importance or usage of play-action passing. In 2020, the Cowboys were 25th in the NFL in percentage of play-action drop backs at 21.3 percent. Running the football was far less threatening to opposing defenses as it had been in previous years, as they ranked 13th and 15th in percentage of play action passes in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

The biggest issue for the 2020 Cowboys was the play of their defense. They ranked 23rd in total yards allowed, 31st in rushing yards allowed, 30th in rushing yards per attempt and 27th in passing TDs allowed.

The 2021 off-season’s emphasis after locking up Prescott was entirely on improving the defense. Their first move was hiring former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as their new defensive coordinator. From there, they added Carlos Watkins, Tarrell Basham and Keanu Neal in free agency. In the draft, their first six picks were all defensive players, including first-round LB Micah Parsons. The Cowboys coveted length, versatility and athleticism with their defensive selections, adding three CBs (Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright and Israel Mukuamu) who are all either long (Mukuamu and Wright are both 6-4) or have great ball skills (Joseph). Joseph, their second-round pick, had some character issues in college, but also had a higher INTs/target ratio than any of the first-round CBs drafted in the past five years. In terms of athleticism, Joseph was the top-ranked CB in this class in the 33rd Team’s Athletic Success Indicator (ASI) metric. The Cowboys defense could still struggle, as they will feature a lot of youth and inexperience, with only two projected starters drafted prior to 2016, per Ourlads.

The 2021 Cowboys should have one of the best offenses in the league with top-tier playmakers at WR and the return of Prescott. They could still see struggles on defense with a lack of high end, established talent, but with Dan Quinn leading a group of athletic young players, the upside is immense. The key for Dallas to make a playoff push will once again be health.


To Make Playoffs: -167

To Miss Playoffs: +137


Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook

Stats: PFF, Pro-Football-Reference

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