It’s A ‘Hard Knocks’ Life 1.5

College Basketball just wrapped up an exciting year of March Madness, NHL and NBA Playoffs are creeping up, it’s the Masters season in golf, and baseball season is FINALLY underway.

And, yet, here I am waiting for July when NFL teams start reporting for Training Camp.

Am I really that simple minded that I can’t get excited about another sport other than football? The answer is “Yes, 1,000 times, yes,” but I digress.

Speaking of Training Camp, the NFL and HBO just announced a four-year extension to continue the beloved Hard Knocks series, which is set to debut Aug. 8 of this year.

Unfortunately, no team has been announced yet, and I’m dying to dissect storylines of this year’s participant.

Because of the rules set in place prior to the 2013 season in which a team is exempt from the series because of one of three things…

  1. The team made the playoffs in at least one of the previous two seasons.
  2. The team has a first-year head coach
  3. The team was featured within the last 10 years

…only eight teams qualify in which the league can force them to participate in the series.

Since nobody has been announced yet, I’m going to pick out one storyline from each team to watch out for. I’ll do another blog on the selected team when they’re announced and dive deeper into more storylines.

1. Baltimore Ravens – A Return to Prominence

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From 2008 to 2012, the Ravens were always one team you could count on to reach the playoffs.

Joe Flacco became the first quarterback to win at least one playoff game in his first five seasons, and the team rode the coattails of a historic playoff run by him (11 TDs to 0 INTs) en route to a Super Bowl win in 2012.

Since then, the team has gone 31-33 and has one playoff win.

With the retirement of potential Hall-of-Fame wide receiver of Steve Smith, Sr. and most of that 2012 squad gone, could the window of opportunity be closing on head coach John Harbaugh to return to the promise land?

What to Follow: With the Ravens out of the playoff race three of the last four seasons, how does the team return to top contender form, and is John Harbaugh now coaching for his job?

2. Chicago Bears – The End of the Jay Cutler Era

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I just want to say, from my personal standpoint, the Bears NEVER EVER had a quality quarterback. EVER!!!

Yes, they won a Super Bowl with Jim McMahon and reached another with Rex Grossman, but they were both lucky to be on the same teams as of one historic defense in ’85, and one really good one in ’06.

Bears fans thought those days were done of subpar play when Jay Cutler came in, but in his eight seasons as the Bears quarterback, the team had two winning seasons and made the playoffs once.

The team finally released him this past offseason and signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon to a $14 million contract, which is a lot for someone who hasn’t started a game since 2014.

The team holds the third overall pick in the draft, but many are expecting them to take a defensive player and with no quality quarterbacks this draft, it’s likely they’ll stick with Glennon in 2017.

What to Follow: Do the Bears wind up drafting a quarterback to compete with Glennon, or do they stick with the former Buc?

3. Cleveland Browns – Young Players Maturing Quickly

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The Browns have been the laughing stock of the NFL since returning in 1999, with only one playoff appearance and two winnings season in that time frame.

Last season, the Browns, under head coach Hue Jackson, finished 1-15 and were dangerously close to being the second team to finish 0-16, but earned their lone win on Christmas Eve (Merry Christmas to them, I suppose.)

With a plethora of draft picks last year and a plethora of picks this year, it’s no secret that the Browns are a very young squad that will get better in time.

Last season’s week one starter at quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and journeyman Josh McCown are both gone, potentially leaving the starting position open for second-year man Cody Kessler, who played very well in eight games last year with six touchdown passes to only two interceptions.

However, the team also has quarterback Brock Osweiler thanks to a blockbuster trade with the Houston Texans, but the chances of him being part of the 53-man roster come September are very slim as he’s a cap casualty with his $72 million contract and the fact that he’s not very good.

The Browns hold the first and 12th overall picks in the draft this year, and they could very well pick Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, but could a new starting quarterback be in the mix as well?

What to Follow: After a horrendous 2016 season, how does the team turn it’s fortunes around and take advantage of the young talent they have?

4. Indianapolis Colts – This Seat is on Fiyaaaahhh

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Head coach Chuck Pagano should be thanking the good lord above every night that he’s still employed.

After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, the team fired general manager Ryan Grigson and elected to keep Pagano. Granted, Grigson was mostly responsible for the team’s poor drafting and free agency signings to surround quarterback Andrew Luck, but a good head coach turns chicken shit into chicken salad.

With a new general manager at the helm, Pagano is under more pressure than ever to produce a division title in the league’s weakest division. If he doesn’t, the Colts will be looking for a new head coach in 2018.

What to Follow: How does Pagano prepare his team for a do-or-die season, and how does he help Luck bounce back to Pro Bowl form?

5. New Orleans Saints – On Duh Fence

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The Saints have had some of the worst defenses in league history since they won the Super Bowl back in 2009.

Since then, the team has only cracked the top-10 once in total defense, and it’s caused the team to miss out on the playoffs three of the last four seasons.

Drew Brees is on the backend of his career and hasn’t come close to reaching the Super Bowl again while head coach Sean Payton has taken the brunt of the blame for the poor defensive play.

Hopefully the team drafts heavy on defense to help Brees get back to the playoffs for one more shot at glory before he retires.

What to Follow: What does the team do to improve defensively, and with Payton undoubtedly on the hot seat, how does he rally the troops to compete once again?

6. Philadelphia Eagles – Does Carson Wentz Have Enough Help?

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The Eagles started hot in 2016, going 3-0 in September but only finishing the season 7-9 due to poor wide receiver play and the offensive line going with several different combinations, including five at right tackle alone.

The biggest offseason acquisitions were the acquiring of receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, both of whom signed friendly deals that won’t harm Philly in the long run should they not pan out in 2017.

The team addressed offensive line needs by signing guard Chance Warmack from the Tennessee Titans and extending guard/center Stefen Wisniewski’s contract.

The biggest question marks now are on defense – particularly at cornerback – and with a cornerback heavy draft upcoming, it’s safe to say the Eagles will hit that position hard and often.

What to Follow: How will Jeffery and Smith fit into their new surroundings? Can they help Carson Wentz make a big leap and avoid the sophomore slump, or will the Eagles fall victim to another year of prized free agents not panning out?

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Does Year Three Bring Big Things?

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Slowly, but surely, the Bucs have been a team on the rise since drafting quarterback Jameis Winston in 2015.

They improved from 2-14 in 2014 to 6-10 in 2015 and then to 9-7 in 2016, their first winning season since 2010.

Behind young players such as Winston, wide receiver Mike Evans, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive back Vernon Hargreaves, III the team is poised to compete for a division title.

DeSean Jackson comes in from free agency to help spread the field and give Winston a new toy to play with.

What to Follow: Not too much was expected from offensive coordinator turned head coach Dirk Koetter, but in year one he provided a winning season. What does he do for an encore?

8. Tennessee Titans – A Weak Division for the Taking

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Nobody expected the Titans to finish with a winning record in 2016, let alone be in the hunt for their first division title since 2008.

With the Houston Texans in disarray over the Brock Osweiler fiasco, the Jacksonville Jaguars taking one step forward and two steps back every year, and the Indianapolis Colts failing year in and year out to improve around Andrew Luck, it’s safe to say the AFC South could very well go to the Titans this season.

Marcus Mariota was having a Pro Bowl season before breaking his fibula, and Mike Mularkey proved he could be a quality head coach.

The team has done a good job of surrounding Mariota with pieces to succeed, but there’s still more work to be done in the receiving area and defensive side.

What to Follow: Mularkey had failed stints as head coach in Buffalo and Jacksonville, so how can he continue the Titans’s upward climb and prove that his first year wasn’t a fluke?

Who Do I Want?

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If I’m being honest, I would love to see the Browns featured the year.

I feel with a very young roster, the first overall pick in the draft and the potential for a quarterback competition they could make for a very compelling season.

Also, receiver Josh Brown is applying to be reinstated after suspensions due to drug problems, so that would be a cool storyline to follow.

Jackson has come out and said he doesn’t want the Browns on the show, but, sorry Hue, that ain’t up to you!

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