Before you know it, the 2021 NFL season will be knocking at the door. But before that, we’ll have some other knocks: “Hard Knocks.” A year after HBO featured both Los Angeles teams — the Chargers and Rams — in a COVID-heavy season of the annual training camp series, five other franchises are eligible to be featured this time around: The Broncos, Cardinals, Cowboys, Giants and Panthers.
That’s per an agreement between the NFL and its 32 teams regarding eligibility for the show: Since 2014, franchises are not required to be included as potential “Hard Knocks” participants if they 1.) have a first-year head coach, 2.) have made the playoffs in the last two seasons, or 3.) have appeared on the show in the past 10 years. Teams are, however, also allowed to volunteer for inclusion.
As the 2021 offseason nears its official kickoff and brings us one step closer to camp, here’s our early ranking of the five eligible candidates, sorted from worst to first:
5. Arizona Cardinals
For all the big-name firepower they boast, namely quarterback Kyler Murray and star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the Cardinals are kind of … underwhelming, aren’t they? Murray and Hopkins are often a fireworks show on the field, but Arizona has gone 5-10-1 and 8-8 in Kliff Kingsbury’s first two seasons, which is representative of the divide between their hype/upside and actual production. Barring a total heel turn from Kliff in an effort to outdo fellow NFC West
model coach Sean McVay in front of the cameras, who else is stealing the HBO cameras? They wouldn’t be a bad pick, but the other contenders offer more drama.
4. Denver Broncos
I can just feel the Cardinals fans seething. Look, no one believes the Broncos are more exciting than the Cards right now, but this one goes beyond the surface. Drew Lock feels far from settled as the starting quarterback. A Deshaun Watson trade would catapult them up the charts, but honestly, even a bargain-bin add such as Andy Dalton or Ryan Fitzpatrick would make their QB room a sight to see. Throw in the possibility of John Elway trying not to steal the spotlight (and front-office authority), coach Vic Fangio’s mildly hot seat, a young receiving group with Jerry Jeudy and a defense potentially reeling from Von Miller’s departure, and they’re enticing.
3. New York Giants
There’s a strong case they belong even higher, because they’ve never appeared on the show before. More importantly, they’ve got one heck of a cast of characters, from edgy coach Joe Judge to meme generator Jason Garrett to hit-or-miss QB Daniel Jones to computer whiz general manager Dave Gettleman. The G-Men would make for must-see TV because of their market, their just-miss finish to 2020 and, well, the normal shenanigans that seem to accompany New Jersey — er, New York — football. You know what? If you’re still reading this, let’s just pretend they share No. 2 with the …
2. Carolina Panthers
At first glance, they don’t carry the same circus appeal as the Giants. (Few do!) But the Panthers are legitimately one of the most interesting teams of the 2021 season. They’ve got a peppy and still-fresh coach in Matt Rhule, who’s still transforming the franchise as part of his long-term vision of culture-building. They’ve got a hot young coordinator in Joe Brady. They’ve got an aggressive new GM in Scott Fitterer. Oh, and they’re pretty hungry for a QB upgrade, which spells all kinds of juicy material. Whether it’s Teddy Bridgewater battling a rookie or getting a mid-summer call that he’s being shipped to Houston for Deshaun Watson, the upside is huge here.
1. Dallas Cowboys
I mean, how could it be anyone else? Dallas has appeared twice before on the show, first in 2002 and again in 2008, but “America’s Team” is never not interesting. The Cowboys may have been trash for much of the 2020 season, but that makes them all the more entertaining entering 2021, with coach Mike McCarthy under pressure to rebound and a massive QB dilemma on their hands with Dak Prescott set to potentially play a second straight year under the franchise tag. Between the Jones family and the inevitable Dak contract talk and whatever midriff fashion Ezekiel Elliott tries to pull off, they’d be must-see TV.