HBO’s 2019 season of “Hard Knocks” with the Raiders was one that NFL fans will never forget, considering the endless drama that Antonio Brown’s troubled tenure with the team provided, and the countless clips of head coach Jon Gruden.
But, as crazy as last year was for camera crews to follow, training camp ahead of the 2020 NFL season will likely their most unique challenge to date considering the circumstances created by COVID-19.
When “Hard Knocks” takes over on HBO in mid-August this year, it’ll be doing so in one city, per usual. However, this season will cover two different teams: the Los Angeles Chargers, and some familiar faces with the Los Angeles Rams.
Given the pandemic, HBO and the NFL were forced to switch gears from the usual selection criteria, and erred on the side of caution by deciding to post up in Los Angeles for the summer. As a result, the Rams will be featured for the second time in four years, while the Chargers will get their first crack at the “Hard Knocks” spotlight.
10. The evolution of the Chargers defense
When you’re playing in a division like the AFC West and are forced to face a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes twice a year, you’re going to need a star-studded defense. Luckily for the Chargers, they’ve built up just that heading into the 2020 NFL season.
The Chargers are stacked across the board, and it’s tough to find a hole in their defensive system at this point. With defensive end Joey Bosa pressuring the backfield after a big-time contract extension, linebacker Melvin Ingram III quarterbacking the defense, and names like safety Derwin James and cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Casey Hayward Jr. in the secondary, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has a lot to work with.
Ever year, a defensive player takes one of the “Hard Knocks” spotlights, whether it was J.J. Watt for the Texans, Aaron Donald for the Rams or even rookie Jonathan Abram for the Raiders last summer. As this season ramps up this summer, it’ll be interesting to see who among the Chargers’ bunch stands out and gains some notoriety as a result.
9. How the Rams will move forward without Todd Gurley in the backfield
Last time the Rams were on “Hard Knocks,” a young Todd Gurley was a major part of the team’s backfield, and got some special treatment as Jeff Fisher, the team’s head coach at the time, looked to keep him in tip-top shape throughout the preseason.
“We need to treat him like a freakin’ quarterback,” Fisher said during training camp that year.
Just a few years later, the Rams went the opposite way of that star treatment, releasing the veteran running back after the conclusion of the 2019 season.
Now, Gurley is preparing for his first year in a Falcons uniform, and Rams head coach Sean McVay needs to figure out how he’s going to fill the void in 2020. Does he roll with second-year running back Darrell Henderson? Or will rookie Cam Akers or an undrafted free agent from 2015 in Malcolm Brown take control of the reps?
The Rams’ offense is in need of an overhaul, and the running back position will turn into a big storyline in the grand scheme of things.
8. Can Keenan Allen get the recognition he’s been looking for this offseason?
Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen went off on social media after the NFL Network released the Top 100 Players of 2020, saying that players like Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, or Buccaneers WRs Mike Evans and Chris Godwin aren’t better receivers than him.
Now, Allen will have something that those other three receivers don’t ahead of the 2020 season: “Hard Knocks,” a platform to speak his mind and let everyone know how good he is.
HBO feeds off of outspoken receivers who are looking to make names for themselves: Antonio Brown during the Raiders’ season, Jarvis Landry during the Browns’ season, and so on. Now, with quieter receivers filling the Rams’ depth chart, the Chargers will be able to provide that spark that HBO loves to see in its content.
Will Allen come off as someone desperate for the attention? Or will he be able to insert himself into a higher spot in the minds of analysts and fellow players across the league? We’ll find out this summer when “Hard Knocks” premieres.
7. The growth of Jared Goff since his first season on “Hard Knocks”
During Jared Goff’s rookie season, he had camera crews following his every move as “Hard Knocks” took over Los Angeles for the first time. Now, he’ll be able to showcase how much he’s grown over the span of his first four seasons in the league.
Just a few years ago, Goff was able to take the Rams to the Super Bowl, and it looked like the future was bright for fans of the team. Then, things seemed to fall apart in 2019, and another NFC West team found themselves playing in the last game of the season: the 49ers.
Viewers would have loved to see how a quarterback like Falcons star Matt Ryan bounced back after a devastating Super Bowl loss, and they’ll get the next best thing when Goff takes the stage as the only set-in-stone quarterback on this season of “Hard Knocks.”
6. The Chargers’ quarterback battle
While Goff comfortably prepares for the 2020 season knowing that he has job security, the Chargers’ three quarterbacks are left vying for the team’s starting job this summer.
Again, Tyrod Taylor enters a season of “Hard Knocks” as the veteran quarterback at the top of the depth chart, this time as a member of the Chargers rather than the Browns’ 2018 team. But, again, he has a rookie quarterback nipping at his heels in the sixth overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft: Oregon alum Justin Herbert.
Taylor won the quarterback battle against the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Baker Mayfield, the last time he was on “Hard Knocks,” but lost the starting job a few weeks into the season. Now, he’ll have to beat out both Herbert and second-year quarterback Easton Stick if he wants to lead the Chargers under center.
“Hard Knocks” thrives on quarterback battles, and they’ll guarantee themselves one by filming the Chargers throughout training camp this year.
5. What players do away from the field in a world impacted by a pandemic
It’s likely that some of “Hard Knocks” will be filmed in a virtual setting to keep up with social distancing protocols, and to highlight the “new normal” that players, coaches and fans are getting used to as a result of COVID-19.
Another thing players will need to get used to? Being careful away from the field, and likely spending less of their breaks from the game in public settings.
Given California’s continued COVID-19 cases throughout the last few months, and the strict rules players will have to follow to avoid testing positive for/spreading the coronavirus, HBO won’t get content for events like players going to aquariums, museums, amusement parks or anything of the like.
As a result, it’ll be intriguing to watch and see how players spend their time away from practices, especially given the added free time due to the lack of preseason games this summer.
4. A closer look at the coaching styles of Rams HC Sean McVay
If it weren’t for the rule that first-year head coaches are exempt from “Hard Knocks,” and if the Rams weren’t on “Hard Knocks” the year before head coach Sean McVay was brought in to replace Jeff Fisher, HBO would’ve jumped at this opportunity sooner.
But, they’ll be able to finally focus on the young, upstart head coach after all of these years, and they’ll get to do so at a time when coaching the sport is at its most challenging point.
How has a coach like McVay operated in a completely-virtual setting? What kind of roster decisions will he be forced to make without much of a sample size for his players? How will he evaluate key positional battles without proper, in-game reps?
If there was ever a coach to have as part of your COVID-19 edition of “Hard Knocks,” McVay is your guy, and he’ll make for some quality content throughout HBO’s summer in Los Angeles.
3. How will HBO camera crews split the attention between two teams?
Never before has HBO featured two teams on “Hard Knocks” at the same time. However, the league is in a tough spot as it deals with COVID-19, and both the Chargers and Rams will be represented when the program premieres on August 11.
HBO probably would have jumped at the rare opportunity to film a team like the upstart Arizona Cardinals or grizzled Pittsburgh Steelers under normal circumstances, but the chance to take on two teams at once may be the next best bet at the moment. With limited content due to a lack of a preseason, having twice as much practice footage and twice as many storylines to consider is the perfect solution.
Now, the question shifts to how the camera crews will spread out their attention between the two teams? Will it be an even, 50-50 split that leads to 25-or-so minutes of content for each team? Or, if a team like the Chargers turns into the clear favorite because of their quarterback battle or defensive stars, will they shift the focus to them?
It’s a complicated dilemma, and one that will turn into a fun storyline of its own to follow throughout the season.
2. The impact of no preseason games on battles for roster spots
COVID-19 has already had a large impact on the 2020 NFL season, between training camps starting later, free agents and undrafted free agents not being able to work out for teams throughout the offseason, and some players even opting out before the season begins.
Arguably the biggest difference this summer, however, is the fact that no preseason games will be played before the regular season gets underway.
Positional battles, like the Rams’ running backs or Chargers’ quarterbacks, will have to be judged differently, and rookies and lower-tier players on the bubble may lose their jobs without a true chance to compete for them in a game. For HBO’s sake, it’ll make for increased intensity at practices, and more difficult decisions for coaches to consider.
Yes, HBO loses out on in-game content that used to keep the story moving in past seasons, but they’ll be able to craft more storylines to follow on the practice field instead, and that itself is a fascinating element to pay attention to this summer.
1. How NFL teams will operate as a result of COVID-19 protocols
Most of the storylines on this list fall under one main category, but it’s the one thing fans have never seen before: how NFL teams will be forced to operate as a result of the newly-implemented COVID-19 protocols.
COVID-19 testing, socially-distanced locker rooms, no joint scrimmages, no preseason games, and even split-up rosters if a team decides to enter training camp with more than 80 players. All new factors for teams to deal with when their season starts, and all things that fans will be able to get an up-close look at when “Hard Knocks” goes live in August.
Many viewers may be confused as to why “Hard Knocks” will even happen with such strict rules and no games to film throughout the summer, but it may all make for the show’s best season yet. It’s all fresh content that fans have never witnessed, and it will lead to new perspectives from players that get them away from the usual cliches and repeated answers frequently heard in interviews.
All in all, it could turn out to be the perfect storm for HBO in the long run, and will serve as a fun way for NFL fans to jump back into the fray before the 2020 regular season gets underway in September.