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‘Hard Knocks’: Each eligible NFL team for HBO’s 2021 season

(AP Photo / Ron Jenkins)

Every year, one NFL team takes over HBO’s programming for a season of “Hard Knocks,” giving fans a behind-the-scenes glimpse at an entire training camp before the start of the regular season.

As a result, fans have been treated to some high-quality content over the last few years, whether it’s Jon Gruden’s antics and Antonio Brown’s controversial summer playing for the Oakland Raiders, Rex Ryan’s time with the New York Jets, or Baker Mayfield’s first camp as a rookie for the Cleveland Browns.

Some fans love to see what goes on behind the usually-closed doors of their squad’s front office, and others would rather the HBO crews stay far away from their hometown team to avoid any rifts or drama. Either way, many fans can’t wait for the time to come when the league announces who’s next when it comes to “Hard Knocks.”

But, there are certain rules that go into the decision-making process when it comes to picking the upcoming season’s featured team. The criteria has three simple prerequisites:

  • No teams who were in the playoffs in the last two seasons
  • No teams with a first-year head coach
  • No teams which have been featured on “Hard Knocks” in the last 10 years

The show’s 2020 season broke some of those trends, with COVID-19 creating a scenario where the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams were each showcased at the same time.

Assuming the usual requirements are in play, there are five eligible candidates for the 2021 season of “Hard Knocks” with a variety of storylines:

(AP Photo / Jack Dempsey)

5. Denver Broncos

The Drew Lock hype train may have rolled off the tracks throughout the 2020 NFL season, and the future of the Denver Broncos seems to be up in the air heading into the franchise’s 2021 campaign.

But, despite its lackluster record in 2020, the team fits the bill as far as candidacy for Hard Knocks is concerned.

>>FROM 2020: ‘He’s ready to go’: Inspecting the Drew Lock hype train before the Broncos QB’s sophomore season

New Broncos general manager George Paton had himself a busy offseason, bringing in former Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for some competition for Lock to contend with in 2021.

Paton also drafted a future star in cornerback Patrick Surtain II, which will help the defense’s case from an entertainment standpoint.

Away from those pieces, there isn’t much there for HBO, NFL Films and company to work with for an entire summer. The other four candidates are likely better options for higher-ups to choose from.

(AP Photo / Tim Ireland)

4. Carolina Panthers

While the addition of Teddy Bridgewater makes the Denver Broncos a little more intriguing, the Carolina Panthers dealing with Bridgewater’s departure may be even better TV.

Unlike the Broncos, the Panthers are guaranteed to have a new starting quarterback for 2021, opting for former New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold and choosing to send Bridgewater to the Broncos.

>>RELATED: Positives and negatives of NFL’s new 17-game regular season

Similar to Denver, however, the Panthers chose to bolster their defense with their top 10 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, picking up cornerback Jaycee Horn from South Carolina.

With star running back Christian McCaffrey in the fray after an injury-riddled 2020 season, and second-year head coach Matt Rhule at the helm, the Panthers could be considered a lower-tier candidate for the 2021 season of “Hard Knocks.”

(AP Photo / Mark LoMoglio)

3. New York Giants

Many have counted out New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones after his first two seasons in the league, and have similarly written the team off as head coach Joe Judge puts in work ahead of his second season at the helm.

But, the Giants were never featured on “Hard Knocks” throughout the show’s first 15 seasons, and could be a solid option for the summer of 2021.

Jones’ growth is an important storyline for fans of both the Giants themselves and the NFC East as a whole, and an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes with Judge as head coach would provide some fascinating content.

>>RELATED: Why Giants QB Daniel Jones could be a star, and what the team can do to make it happen

However, outside of signing a few solid free agents and selecting wide receiver Kadarius Toney in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Giants didn’t exactly make a big splash in the 2021 offseason.

There wouldn’t be as much drama as the Broncos and Panthers, but the Giants are a big enough name that HBO could make it work for a summer.

(AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)

2. Arizona Cardinals

If all had been normal last year, the Arizona Cardinals were probably the best candidate for the 2021 season of “Hard Knocks.” Instead, one of their division rivals in the NFC West was featured on the show for the second time in five seasons.

With quarterback Kyler Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury preparing for third season together in Arizona, the Cardinals are one of the most hyped-up offenses in the entire league heading into 2021.

>>RELATED: The hype is real: Watch out for Kyler Murray and the Cardinals

But, the real focus seems to be on their defense after a busy offseason, headlined by the addition of former Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and the return of linebacker Chandler Jones.

Watt was “Hard Knocks” gold when the Texans were on the show in 2015, Jones is full of energy, and young linebacker Isaiah Simmons will be another interesting storyline to follow ahead of his sophomore season.

Add in star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ second year in Arizona, and the Cardinals would seem like a no-brainer if it weren’t for the final candidate on this list.

1. Dallas Cowboys

So long as COVID-19 isn’t a factor that eliminates them from contention, and it doesn’t appear like it will be an issue when factoring in Texas’ lack of COVID-19-related restrictions, the Dallas Cowboys are the obvious choice for the 2021 season of “Hard Knocks.”

There’s an argument to be made that the franchise was already featured twice in the show’s first 15 seasons, but it’s an opportunity that seems impossible to turn down.

After a mediocre 2020 season, “America’s Team” has everything HBO could ask for heading into 2021.

The return of quarterback Dak Prescott from a devastating injury that ended his 2020 campaign early. The end of the yearslong drama between Prescott and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones surrounding a long-term contract extension.

>>RELATED: Dak Prescott, Cowboys agree to new deal with record $126M guaranteed

The presence of big names like running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, and linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.

A big-name rookie in linebacker Micah Parsons, the 12th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

HBO likely has dollar signs flashing in front of their eyes as they evaluate the options for “Hard Knocks” in 2021, and football fans should be salivating at the potential for a summer centered around the Cowboys.

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