The Super Bowl is already two weeks behind us, and while you could choose to get through the NFL’s long off-season by reading Mock Drafts, free agency predictions and actual analysis, we personally think a great way to fill the time is to provide you with a completely speculative and subjective ranking of potential 2017 Hard Knocks teams! (The L.A. Rams were announced as the NFL’s selection in March of last year, so if that same timeline is followed, we’ll be on the edge of our seats for a few weeks longer). For those unaware of how eligibility works, the rules are as follows: The NFL can mandate that a team participate in the show, but the team is allowed to turn it down if it has 1)hired a new head coach this off-season,2) made the playoffs in either of the past two years or 3)appeared on the show in the last decade.
That leaves us with eight teams who could be required to participate. Some of those teams are rising contenders, others are mediocre, and a couple are bad—though, as you’ll see from the rankings, bad teams don’t necessarily mean bad television. Below is (again, a completely subjective!) ranking of how intriguing each of those remaining candidates would be if they were granted their own season of Hard Knocks.
I sat for 10 minutes attempting to think of something exciting to say about the Bears, and it appears my efforts were in vain. Kevin White’s attempt to recover from an injury-ridden start to his career is intriguing, but not enough to sustain a series. Jay Cutler will likely be elsewhere, and even if he’s not, there are really only so many close-ups of #RestingCutlerFace we can be expected to take. The Bears were already involved in too many primetime games this year. We deserve a break.
Steve Smith has officially retired, and with him goes Baltimore’s chance of being compelling TV. Its attempt to return to a period of sustained success is a good NFL storyline, but I don’t feel confident that John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco will translate into riveting television personalities. The Ravens, led at the time by Brian Billick and featuring Shannon Sharpe’s television-ready personality, were on the first season of Hard Knocks and made it a memorable one. Let’s let that live on as the team’s reality TV legacy.
The Eagles, as they stand right now, are not a very interesting team to non-fans. They’re not particularly good and not particularly bad, and choosing them feels a little too much like the Rams of last year: a 7–9 squad that’s still in a bit of a rebuilding process. We already got Jared Goff last season—do we need his draft counterpart in ’17?
I’d guess that the Saints are high on the NFL’s list because it gives them a star to promote the show around (even though Drew Brees’s storylines would likely be limited to fluff “There’s our superstar!” slow-mo music montages and interactions with some of the younger guys as they try to make their mark). High-profile coach Sean Payton, who is coming off a season where he withstood rumors that he might be heading elsewhere, bumps the interest level way up, and the personality of the city of New Orleans and its fans will boost the standard scenes of rookies exploring their new city, especially since the team is staying in Louisiana to have training camp in Metairie this year, after spending the past three years in West Virginia.
I personally would 100% be in favor of dedicating at least 15 minutes per episode to the Andrew Luck Book Club, but alas, I am not a television executive at HBO for a reason. Like the Saints, I also wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being the NFL’s choice, as the league would love the chance to make Luck the face of the series. While the star QB tends to stick to the method of many of his fellow quarterbacks known as “Don’t say anything interesting or revealing on camera,” there are still quite a few compelling layers to a Colts selection.
There’s a mountain of pressure on coach Chuck Pagano, who many believe should have been fired already, and a window into his relationship with new GM Chris Ballard could be captivating. Jim Irsay is a strange enough figure to make for good TV if the unpredictable owner gets a segment every now and then. And of course, the main storyline is the lingering cloud of expectations that hangs over this team as it keeps falling short year after year. It has a lot of holes to fill—at running back and on defense in particular—so there will be ample opportunity for the rookies and new acquisitions to play an even more prominent role with a plethora of compelling positional battle storylines.
The Titans may not be the splashiest team ever, but in the context of this show, they’re one of the more watchable ones. Tennessee is a young team whose relatively successful 2016 season fell just short of a playoff berth, and that puts it in a similar boat with the No. 2 pick on this list, the (spoiler alert!) Buccaneers. Marcus Mariota doesn’t have the same oversized personality that Jameis Winston does, but it’ll be interesting to see him get back at it following a Christmas Eve injury that derailed the Titans’ chances. Add DeMarco Murray in tandem with Heisman-winning RB Derrick Henry as well as Taylor Lewan, Jurrell Casey, Delanie Walker and ’16 first-rounder Jack Conklin to the mix and we’ve got quite an intriguing and talented cast of characters on tap.
It is safe to say we will likely never have a Hard Knocks coach who will live up to Rex Ryan’s standout performance from a few years ago, and it is perhaps even safer to say that second-year coach Dirk Koetter will not be telling his team to “go eat a goddamn snack.” Still, last season’s Rams had Jeff Fisher at the helm, and he’s not exactly someone who brings words like “entertaining” and “hilarious” to mind, so Koetter would probably be fine. Like the Titans, the Bucs fell just short of the playoffs this year and appear to be a team on the rise. They have plenty of characters to hone in on, from their charismatic and polarizing star-in-the-making at QB to a major weapon in Mike Evans to a second-year pass rusher with his own troubled past in Noah Spence, to an under-the-radar but solid offensive guard Ali Marpet who breaks the mold in his own way. Plus—and yes, I realize what I’m about to do is make the case for a compelling storyline involving a kicker—they could devote a good amount of time to the trials and tribulations of second-round pick Roberto Aguayo, who will be seeking redemption after an awful rookie year.
1. Cleveland Browns (Yes, you’re reading this right)
O.K. I know this is weird. Teams with bona fide stars and a real chance of succeeding in 2017 are on this list and somehow, the god-forsaken Browns are my top choice. Bear with me. (And, for what it’s worth, Hue Jackson has already said he wants nothing to do with Hard Knocks this year, so perhaps the NFL will respect his wishes).
It may just be the sadist in me, but there is something fascinating about watching the inner workings of the most futile team in the league. How do those frustrations of nonstop losing translate onto television? What’s it like to watch the team’s revolving door of quarterbacks as each attempts to win—and keep—the starting job? What about the mentality of Cleveland’s two first-round draft picks this year, including the guy who will be the No. 1 pick barring a pre-draft trade, as they head into what’s been widely accepted as a football wasteland? And that’s not even mentioning the pure entertainment factor of Terrelle Pryor, who has emerged as one of the most exciting players to watch in the league. The Browns don’t have any real stars, and that makes them perfect for Hard Knocks, which has always been a show that thrives on the storylines focused around the guys who are just trying to survive. Everyone on the Browns is just trying to survive.
This team’s football games make for a terrible viewing experience. But the interactions between teammates and their second-year head coach as they attempt to finally, finally improve while grappling with the never-ending negativity that surrounds their franchise? Well, that just may just turn out to be reality TV gold.