Hard Knocks 2021: Five best candidates to be the featured team

By Matt Johnson
Aug 18, 2020; Thousand Oaks California, USA; A HBO Hard Knocks film cameraman shoots video footage at Los Angeles Rams training camp at Cal Lutheran University. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL offseason is set to begin and that means Hard Knocks 2021 is right around the corner. After an underwhelming season, the least-watched in the show’s history, the NFL and HBO need to turn things around next summer.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of exciting options. The two-team experiment didn’t work last year; the spotlight needs to be on one club as players battle it out for spots on the 53-man roster. The return of preseason games will help, creating an additional storyline for each episode that fans can enjoy. If HBO wants to see a strong audience next season, though, it’s going to need some star power.

Even with restrictions that limit the field of eligible teams, there are plenty of compelling candidates to choose from who would be great candidates for Hard Knocks 2021.

Hard Knocks 2021: Top candidates who HBO must consider for next season

In 2011, NFL owners implemented rules that allowed certain clubs to avoid mandatory inclusion among the candidates for Hard Knocks each season. Under the guidelines, teams with a first-year head coach can decline an invitation, clubs who made the playoffs in the past two seasons and previous participants in the HBO and NFL Films joint production in the last decade can decline inclusion.

Teams don’t like to be featured on the show. The need for cameras, microphones and non-team employees to be everywhere inside a facility is a headache no coach wants to deal with. There’s also a belief that being featured on the show, with clips of their training camp practices out for public consumption could put that club at a competitive disadvantage. But when push comes to shove, the NFL is always willing to force a team to take part.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Hard Knocks 2021: Jacksonville Jaguars
Feb 12, 2021; Clemson, SC, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer (middle) watches as Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence works out during Pro Day in Clemson, South Carolina. Mandatory Credit: David Platt/Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports

As NFL.com points out, the Jaguars could decline an invite for Hard Knocks 2021 because they have a first-year head coach. But frankly, this organization would happily accept the attention. Club owner Shahih Khan loves the spotlight on his team. The reason the Jaguars play in London every year, except 2020, is because it slightly improves global exposure. Hard Knocks 2021 could be a launching pad for this team.

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The selection is about more than Trevor Lawrence. Yes, a generational talent and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft helps. But NFL fans will also want to see how Urban Meyer works to build his first program at the professional level. The college football legend isn’t afraid of the camera either, given Ohio State let the Big Ten Network spotlight their training camp with a behind-the-scenes series in 2015. Football fans can see the likes of DJ Chark and James Robinson go from unheralded contributors to recognized playmakers. It would also be a great opportunity for CJ Henderson and Josh Allen to display their personalities. If you’re looking for the early favorite to be featured in Hard Knocks 2021, it’s the Jaguars.

Carolina Panthers

Hard Knocks 2021: Carolina Panthers
Nov 22, 2020; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive end Brian Burns (53) during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

David Tepper might not be one of the most recognized NFL owners, but that will change in time. He is the one pushing hard for Deshaun Watson, determined to land a superstar quarterback for his franchise. Tepper likes to be bold, he made Matt Rhule one of the highest-paid NFL coaches right out of college. He also brings an intriguing personality, which fans could witness on camera along with Rhule’s fiery demeanor.

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We haven’t even touched on the other positives. This would be a spotlight for offensive coordinator Joe Brady, a hot coaching candidate this offseason, who fans will want in 2022. There’s also Christian McCaffey and Brian Burns, two of the best players at their respective positions. Most importantly, intrigue at quarterback. Either the Panthers swing a blockbuster trade for Watson before or during the Hard Knocks series, or they land a prized rookie quarterback in the upcoming NFL Draft. Either way, there will be an incredible storyline to follow.

Arizona Cardinals

Hard Knocks 2021: Arizona Cardinals
Nov 19, 2020; Seattle, Washington, USA; Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury talks with quarterback Kyler Murray (1) during a fourth-quarter timeout against the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals last made the NFL Playoffs in 2015, Kliff Kingsbury is entering his third season as head coach and the Arizona Cardinals have never been on Hard Knocks. Those three things are all music to the league’s ears as it evaluates options for which team to feature this season. Given HBO and NFL Films have spent the past two years on the West Coast, both might like to stay in the area once again.

Kyler Murray might not love doing interviews, but this would be an opportunity to shine under the spotlight. He’s entering his pivotal third season, which could be the launching point in his NFL career. Fans will want to see if the former No. 1 overall pick can take that next step this summer, elevating himself into the conversation with Watson, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. Plus, you know HBO would want him to visit the batting cages.

The cameras won’t only focus on Murray. HBO could take us inside Kingsbury’s luxurious home, DeAndre Hopkins can talk about his experience with the Texans and use the larger platform to keep speaking out against domestic violence. Plus, maybe we’ll finally get to see the Cardinals finally discover how to use Isaiah Simmons properly. This is an underrated candidate for Hard Knocks 2021, especially since they embraced All or Nothing.

Buffalo Bills

Hard Knocks 2021: Buffalo Bills
Dec 28, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) celebrates with quarterback Josh Allen (17) and running back Zack Moss (20) after scoring a touchdown against the New England Patriots during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo has the right to refuse Hard Knocks, but it shouldn’t. This organization loves the fan base it has now, the ties to the community and the devotion fans have to the Bills is insane. With this team set to make the leap into Super Bowl contention with multiple stars on offense, though, now is the perfect time to build upon this team’s brand.

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Josh Allen is a character. He took a hilarious shot at the NFC East and is willing to challenge Patrick Mahomes in a throw-off. After finishing second for NFL MVP, Hard Knocks 2021 would give Allen the chance to become a household name. You can also count on Stefon Diggs to find the camera every chance he gets. While his reputation took a hit with the Minnesota Vikings, his teammates love him and the personality would make him a star on HBO. Heck, fans might even call for the network to make an Allen-Diggs buddy cop movie.

Denver Broncos

Hard Knocks 2021: Denver Broncos
Jan 3, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) during the fourth quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Even after stepping down as general manager, John Elway would still find a way to be featured on Hard Knocks. Of course, the spotlight would be on the team he and new general manager George Paton are building. Even if the Broncos cut Von Miller this spring, which is possible, there’s more than enough reason to watch if this team is featured.

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The focus would center on Drew Lock and whether or not he can be a franchise quarterback. Denver will keep monitoring the trade markets for Watson and Russell Wilson, but the organization seems committed to Lock outside of a monumental upgrade. With that said, expect Denver to bring in a veteran who can challenge him this summer and that makes for compelling television.

Don’t sleep on the Broncos as an option. While they might not seem entertaining on the surface, they have some of the best collection of young pass-catchers in the NFL. Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant will be healthy, while Jerry Jeudy should be ready to make a huge leap in his second season. For football fans and fantasy football owners prepping for the season, this would be a compelling team.