At long last, a most unique Hard Knocks season has reached the finish line. The 15th edition of HBO's docuseries featured no preseason games, limited physical contact during practice and perhaps more focus on larger societal issues than any season that came before it. But to send viewers into the 2020 regular season, Tuesday night's finale stuck to the tried-and-true script: roster cuts.
The previous four Hard Knocks episodes endeared a cast of hopefuls to viewers: Dont'e Deayon, Juju Hughes and Clay Johnston of the Rams; and Darius Bradwell and Breiden Fehoko of the Chargers. Ardent followers of the NFL's cut day already knew each player's fate before Tuesday's episode aired, but the finale offered an opportunity to see how those conversations took place. So once more, with feeling: Here's the final Hard Knocks breakdown of the season.
Final Dress Rehearsal
Each player battling for a roster spot received a final chance to make an impression on coaches before decision day. For the Rams, that last opportunity came in a scrimmage at SoFi Stadium. Each of the three featured players got off to inauspicious starts: Hughes missed a chance at an interception; Deayon got beat deep twice; and Johnston missed tackles or was a step too slow to react to a play. Adding injury to insult, Hughes tweaked a hamstring and had to exit the scrimmage early.
Deayon and Johnston were able to turn things around. The highlight came on a play in which Deayon made a tackle and forced a fumble, which Johnston scooped up and returned for a touchdown.
For the Chargers, Fehoko and Bradwell each made their case on the practice field, with Fehoko emphasizing improving his pass-rush skills. Each rookie made positive plays and mistakes, with every play taking on outsize importance as the deadlined loomed large.
Chargers Star Is Sidelined
In more news that had already rocked the football world earlier in the week, Chargers All-Pro safety Derwin James suffered a torn right meniscus and will miss the entire 2020 season. It's a crushing blow for a player who ranks among the most talented in the league, and who missed 11 games last season with a stress fracture in his foot.
“We have other guys on the team that are gonna have to step up," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. "But it’s hard to step up and replace a young man like him.”
James started every game as a rookie in 2018, recording 105 tackles with three interceptions and 3.5 sacks. His production will be nearly impossible for the Chargers to replace with one player. They'll rely on a safety group that includes Rayshawn Jenkins, Nasir Adderley and Alohi Gilman.
Cut Day Arrives
Around the 28-minute mark of Tuesday's episode, the dramatic moment finally arrived. Viewers were allowed to play fly-on-the-wall as each player learned of their respective fate in conversations with their coaches and general managers.
What followed was roughly 22 minutes of airtime dedicated to roster cuts, set to music that almost certainly was used during a rose ceremony on The Bachelor sometime in the past five years.
We began with the Rams, who opted not to keep Hughes, Deayon or Johnston on their active roster. All three were given spots on the practice squad, though Johnston chose to join the practice squad for the Carolina Panthers. Carolina's head coach is Matt Rhule, who coached Johnston at Baylor, while Johnston's father, Kent, serves as the Panthers' director of player wellness.
For the Chargers, Fehoko and Bradwell were also left off the active roster but retained on the practice squad. In his conversation with Bradwell, Lynn was frank with the rookie on how he needs to build better working habits after showing up to camp more than 20 pounds overweight.
"In order for me to help you unleash those tools, I’ve got to help you become a better professional. You came in to this gig 20-plus pounds over weight, my man. We’re talking about paying you a six-figure income, and I can’t race with that car," Lynn said. "So you’ve got to take care of your body. And you’ve got to figure out what type of vehicle you are. You’re an F-150, maybe a 250. But you ain’t no Corvette, you ain’t no Lambo, so stop trying to run like one."
- In a move that surprised few who had been tracking the situation, the Chargers named Tyrod Taylor their starter for Week 1, giving rookie Justin Herbert more time to learn the ropes. Taylor, who's always been praised for his leadership and work ethic, was featured in a predawn, solo workout at the team's facility in the finale.
In one of the team's final practices before cuts, Chargers quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton summarized the opportunity presented to players clinging to their roster lives as such: "Football is the greatest meritocracy in our society. What you do speaks so much louder than what you say." Fehoko's focus, though, was more direct: "Today, I’ve got to solidify what I am as a player: that’s just a nasty f--- in the middle. Just a nasty motherf---er."
Rams rookie wide receiver Van Jefferson had impressed in training camp and was always a near-lock to make the team. But he received advice from veteran cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who noted the youngster's speed while pointing out how he could improve his route-running.