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Projecting 2021 Playoff Teams: Who's In? Chargers. Who's Out? Titans

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).

This is the third in a series of stories in which we’ll highlight five 2020 non-playoff teams that we think will make the playoffs in 2021 – along with five 2020 playoff teams that we expect to miss the postseason this year.

Part 1: Dolphins in, Bears out

Part 2: Cardinals in, Steelers out



Miss the Playoffs: Tennessee Titans

Over the past two seasons, the Tennessee Titans have been one of the league’s most entertaining teams, with their 2019 run to the AFC Championship Game behind Derrick Henry followed by a 2020 playoff push in which Henry became the league's first 2,000-yard rusher since 2012. The Titans run game last season was second in rushes, yards, TDs and YPA behind only the Ravens’ four-headed rushing attack. In Henry’s last four regular-season games, he averaged 177.5 rushing yards on 26.75 carries per game. In the playoffs, this all came to a halt as he could not find any room to run (18 carries for 40 yards). The main issue plaguing the 2020 Titans was their one-dimensional offense -- if the defense struggled, the running game was lost. Only three of their 11 wins came against teams that finished the season with a winning record. The combined winning percentage of the teams they beat in 2020 was .398.

This offseason, they had to improve their defense, which was 24th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed. They really struggled against the pass, allowing the second-most TDs and pass attempts in the NFL, while allowing the fourth-most yards through the air as well. With the losses of Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson, the Titans replaced them with Janoris Jenkins (who had his second-worst coverage season per PFF coverage grade since 2014) and first-round CB Caleb Farley. The 33rd Team scouting summary on Farley says he is a starting outside CB you can win with in a scheme that lets him play off and use his burst to drive on intermediate to underneath routes. Very patient cover corner who excels downfield and driving on the catch point, using his length, balance, and ball skills to take away receivers and some TEs. Farley was arguably a better prospect than his draft position, but has struggled with back injuries throughout his career. Dr. Jess Flynn spoke about these injuries on our call. With these replacements, it's hard to believe the secondary will fare much better than last season, despite their additions.

Tennessee also brought in big free-agent signing Bud Dupree, which should drastically improve their outside linebacker play against both the pass and run. Dupree regressed some last season (before a season-ending injury) after coming off his best season as a pro in 2019. But he still produced a pass rush win rate of over 13% and totaled the highest pressure rate of his career prior to injury.

On offense, the 23rd-ranked passing offense in yards gained lost two of their top three weapons. Corey Davis, who caught 65 passes for 984 yards and 5 TDs, left in free agency to sign with the New York Jets. Likewise, starting TE and third-leading pass catcher Jonnu Smith, who was second on the team in TDs (8), signed a contract with the Patriots. With these losses, Tennessee will bring back only 50.5% of their receiving yards from last season.

With their moves this offseason, the Titans will be positioned with fewer playmakers on an offense that struggled to produce last season. The defense made minor improvements, but still is a major question mark. Henry will remain efficient and effective, but without the threat of multiple options in the passing game, teams will be able to key in on stopping Henry – just as the Ravens did in the playoffs. The Titans could be positioned to battle for the final wild card spot, as the Colts take the AFC South.


Make the Playoffs: -155

Miss the Playoffs: +127

Make the Playoffs: Los Angeles Chargers

The 2020 Chargers season featured two main storylines: the emergence of QB Justin Herbert and an inability to hold leads. In his first season in the league, Herbert broke many rookie records, including most passing yards in a season, most TDs in a season and most completions. The Chargers managed to get to 7-9 by winning their last four games, including wins over all three divisional rivals, the Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs. After winning their opening game against the Bengals, however, they lost seven of their next eight games – a hole they could not dig out of. Herbert’s rookie passing records were not the only history made; the Chargers became the first team in the NFL to blow leads of 16-plus points in four consecutive games.

Blowing big leads was not the only issue they faced, as their special teams unit was disastrous at times. According to Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings, Los Angeles had the league's worst special teams unit, spearheaded by their last-place finish in net punting yards (34.1) and points allowed on special teams (20). Along with punting woes came the issues in structure of the field goal unit as well, with four kicks being blocked, the most in the NFL in 2020. The root of the problem on punt coverage, punting and kicking all seemingly stemmed from discipline, as they had the most penalties against on special teams.

With blown leads and the special teams issues looming as the main problems to fix this offseason, the Chargers brought in new head coach Brandon Staley, former Rams defensive coordinator. Not coincidentally, the Rams had the least amount of penalties against on defense this past season.

This offseason, the Chargers put a major emphasis on improving their weaknesses, which starts with the offensive line. In only 15 games last season, Herbert faced the most pressures and hurries of any QB. To solve this, the Chargers brought in All-Pro center Corey Linsley and a projected starter at RG in Matt Feiler before drafting LT Rashawn Slater in the first round. The OL should not only keep Herbert safe, but improve space in the run game for Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley.

The WR3 position has plagued the Chargers for years as Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Ekeler out of the backfield have shouldered the load. In the third round of the draft, the Chargers attempted to fill this need with Tennessee WR Josh Palmer. Palmer excelled at the Senior Bowl in 1-on-1 drills and stood out against the majority of top CB talent he faced. The Chargers could feel the loss of TE Hunter Henry, who left this offseason, but will be replaced by Jared Cook, who despite a downgrade in talent, produced more TDs than Henry last season.

The defense remains extremely talented but has been plagued by injuries to major components. DE Joey Bosa and S Derwin James will need to remain healthy for the Chargers to contend for the playoffs. The Chargers will be rolling with youth on defense, with eight out of the 11 starters drafted in 2018 or later.

The Chargers have a real chance to fight for a wild card spot if they are able to improve their consistency and limit their disciplinary mistakes in 2021. With similar or improved weapons, key playmakers back on defense, and Herbert in his second year, the Chargers are primed to be a team on the rise.


Make the Playoffs: +149

Miss the Playoffs: -182

Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook

Stats: PFF, Pro-Football-Reference