If we’ve learned anything through two episodes of Hard Knocks this year, it’s that we probably aren’t going to learn much about the 2020 Los Angeles Rams on Hard Knocks this year. Given all the circumstances surrounding the show, the league, and the world right now, it seems as though the NFL-produced program has shifted its focus away from fringe roster players and instead decided to give air time to the superstars for a change.
One of the things that many fans loved about Hard Knocks was the time spent with day three rookies, undrafted free agents and veteran practice squad heroes who are hoping this will be a life changing year for them and their families. With no preseason games on the slate and with the NFL desperate to fill air time with reminders of how many COVID-19 protocols are in place and that professional football is back in Los Angeles with two teams, there’s barely been a scene for anyone who you don’t know about already.
There are exceptions.
Seventh round linebacker Clay Johnston got plenty of screen time in the second episode, but mostly because of the costly yet entertaining rookie mistakes he was making. And Donte Deayon, whose highest-rated trait on Madden might be “Amount of joy he brings to team,” qualifies as one of those veterans potentially looking at his final shot at a permanent place on the 53.
When you walk into a spider web #HardKnocks | @AyoItsND pic.twitter.com/oG9Qg45Vlo— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) August 19, 2020
But coronavirus means that the Hard Knocks crew can’t spend considerable time with players and coaches off of the field. Even if they could, what would they film? There’s not much room for anyone to do much other than sit at home and go to practice — and so that’s what Hard Knocks: Los Angeles is loaded with this year.
And yet it’s not as though Sean McVay and Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn are going to allow teams to get a jump on any of their secrets. With no preseason that means that all 32 teams are keeping secrets headed into Week 1 that couldn’t possibly be revealed in any other way other than playing in games. Even in games that have no bearing on the final standings. McVay doesn’t want to be the one team that other teams could scout or get a read on with greater clarity than the rest.
Now add that all up and divide it by SoFi Stadium and what do you get? A season of Hard Knocks that says, “Look at all the cool players who are in Los Angeles!”
In past seasons, you would rarely get multiple segments of the team’s best player or their highest draft pick or the big free agent signing, probably because those organizations want to protect them from the distraction. Because Hard Knocks is splitting focus in 2020 between the Rams, Chargers, and coronavirus, it’s really not that much of a distraction to take footage of Aaron Donald and then edit in a few soundbites.
Through the first two episodes, the show has focused on McVay, Donald, Andrew Whitworth, Jared Goff, and Jalen Ramsey, in addition to Deayon and Johnston. For the Chargers, they’ve mostly covered time with Lynn, top pick Justin Herbert, starting running back Austin Ekeler, the recently extended Joey Bosa, and a game of cornhole played by the star-studded secondary.
Now ask yourself: What have we learned about the Chargers?
We haven’t learned where Herbert stands in a QB competition against Tyrod Taylor, just that the coaching staff is (of course) pleased with both. There’s been no discussion on the rebuilt pieces of the offensive line. Nothing on who the number three receiver will be or how the backfield carries will be split. There’s been no reports on the show of how 2019 first round disappointment Jerry Tillery has been performing. Nothing on rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray and how he’s picking up the defense. And obviously we couldn’t discern even a hunch as to how new offensive coordinator Shane Steichen plans to utilize LA’s offensive weapons, including franchise tagged tight end Hunter Henry.
Justin Herbert showing off at target practice @chargers#HardKnocks re-airs tonight at 10:45pm on @HBO and is available now on @HBOMax. pic.twitter.com/8MMPdDzjI7— NFL (@NFL) August 12, 2020
That’s not what Hard Knocks is for but in a season without preseason and at a time when the show’s focus shifts from the back end of the roster to the front end — but with no real substance included — the NFL’s show about the NFL looks even more like a commercial for the NFL.
“The NFL is in Los Angeles and did you know that Aaron Donald’s body is so spectacular that it shouldn’t be donated to science, science should be donated to him?”
Hard Knocks isn’t going to teach us anything about the Rams that we didn’t already know. I imagine in the next three weeks they are going to continue to cover how thoroughly they are testing for and protecting against the spread of coronavirus; they’ll show Jalen Ramsey signing a contract extension; lots and lots (and lots) of footage of SoFi Stadium and surrounding Hollywood Park with players getting tours and being impressed by the $5 billion project that was born into a world not yet ready for it; Johnston’s progress on reading offenses; whether Deayon makes the team or gets released; more Donald flexing; and at some point I assume they’ll talk about Cam Akers but they probably won’t do so in a way that reveals how McVay plans to split his backfield to open the season.
And I’m assuming the last line of the season will be something about the excitement of football in Los Angeles and how it is here to stay.
Here’s some of what we probably won’t hear or see on Hard Knocks but are key football-related topics that could be the difference in how good the football in Los Angeles will be this season.
How the offensive line looks and who starts at guard
It is probable that Sean McVay will reveal his starting offensive line prior to Week 1 and that a clear first string will emerge soon. Maybe not fodder for Hard Knocks, but this has been one of the most hotly debated topics of the offseason and we don’t have final answers yet.
The Rams had Austin Corbett at left guard and David Edwards at right guard last week (at least partially) and we know that recently they had Joseph Noteboom with the starting line at left guard and Corbett at right guard. Assuming Blythe sticks at center, the job could come down to two of those three players.
First group OL working in team drills: LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Joe Noteboom, C Austin Blythe, RG Austin Corbett, RT Rob Havenstein.— Eric Williams (@eric_d_williams) August 18, 2020
The other offensive line revelation we won’t know until weeks from now is how Whitworth, Blythe, and Rob Havenstein will respond to their disappointing season a year ago.
Brandon Staley’s tendencies, gameplan
The Rams are transitioning from a defensive coordinator with over 400 games (with over 400 games(!!!)) of playcalling experience to one with zero. How Staley plans to utilize the NFL’s best defensive player and a top-three cornerback; how he wants to rotate and position a new linebackers crew; his plans for rookies Jordan Burgess, Terrell Lewis, and Jordan Fuller; the amount of base, nickel and dime defense he wants to use (Rams ran the third-most dime and base packages in the league and were in nickel the least amount of any team last season); and who ends up rushing the passer other than Donald.
These are all questions that have answers likely to be as mysterious in three weeks as they are now.
Kevin O’Connell’s tendencies, gameplan
So take the last section and flip it for the offense. O’Connell’s experience as an offensive coordinator is really no greater than Staley’s experience on defense. McVay hasn’t been afraid to be on the extreme ends of the spectrum for offensive personnel groupings and playcalling, but how will that change with O’Connell coming over from Washington, if at all?
Last year Kevin O'Connell was Washington's OC. Here's a look at how he targeted his best RB pass-catcher, Chris Thompson, in comparison to the rest of the RB Room— Eli Grabanski (@3li_handles) August 19, 2020
Chris Thompson Targets: 58
Total RB Room Targets: 103 pic.twitter.com/DZlSqpfPBO
Who wins the kicking competition and whether that was a smart move
The Rams are one of a few teams who will probably end up going with a kicker who has little to no experience and who will be making his first professional kick without ever getting a warm-up swing in the preseason.
The Patriots may go with rookie fifth rounder Justin Rohrwasser. The Titans are looking at Greg Joseph and rookie UDFA Tucker McCann. And in a different strategy, the Giants cut Aldrick Rosas for Chandler Catanzaro, then cut Catanzaro for Graham Gano.
Los Angeles hopes to avoid the free agent market by being impressed with either rookie draft pick Sam Sloman, Lirim Hajrullahu or Austin MacGinnis. I hope so too because I finally learned how to spell Hajrullahu correctly every time.
The Rams are one of only two teams who currently have three kickers — loosely speaking. The other is the Bills, who could release veteran Steven Hauschka if they’re impressed with rookie sixth rounder Tyler Bass. They also have Kaare Vedvick, who the Vikings gave up a fifth round pick for a year ago but now he’s trying to win the punter job in Buffalo.
Keep kicker Lirim Hajrullahu on your radar. He is a CFL star, and he's got what it takes.— Ramblin' Fan (@RamblinFan) August 18, 2020
He's my dark horse to win the K competition.
And, he can backup Johnny Hekker in punting.https://t.co/0PWDOtsEJi https://t.co/1NleuVTbBe
McVay could reveal his starting kicker at any point but because of their current situation at the position, it doesn’t mean that he knows who his kicker will be in October.
The backup quarterback and his success against NFL competition
There is definitely a group of people out there who would love the shit out of a Hard Knocks show that simply followed around John Wolford, Bryce Perkins and Josh Love for a month. At this stage in their careers we can’t rule any of the three out of being a future NFL starter. It could happen. Most likely it won’t, not out of anything more than necessity, but it’s a hard job so who can fault them?
However, it would be interesting to know how the three are responding to the playbook, who is gelling well with teammates, and which of the three may do the most important job of all which is helping Jared Goff prepare in any way they can. We don’t know if one of these three guys will end up having a long career in the league or if the backup ends up being Blake Bortles again.
Without a preseason, these players won’t end up getting all those snaps they would have gotten over those four games and the evaluation will have to be a lot more of a gut feeling than usual.
How Cam Akers fits into the 2020 gameplan
It would not be surprising at this point if Malcolm Brown was the Week 1 starter at running back. It doesn’t mean that Akers or Darrell Henderson can’t be the Week 2 starter, or that there won’t be a real “starter” in any case, but Brown has legitimate advantages over his young, inexperienced backfield teammates.
Camp reports so far have Akers as the number three back and that shouldn’t be surprising; playing running back involves plenty more than simply “take the hand off and go!” How quickly is he picking up the playbook? How’s the pass blocking? Is he where he needs to be at before you place him in front of all-pro veterans like Chandler Jones and Bobby Wagner?
People out here getting all hot under the collar about a second-year RB, Darrell Henderson, getting first-team reps.— Brad Evans (@NoisyHuevos) August 12, 2020
Talked to a Rams beat reporter yesterday and he emphasized how much the organization "loves" Cam Akers.
Will be a RBBC to start, but possibly not for long.
A preseason would have given some hints as to where Akers sits in the depth chart and whether or not coaches trust him to play regardless of situation or down. We certainly aren’t going to learn that on Hard Knocks either — but I guess that’s fair. “Hard Knocks,” at least as I always understood it, is meant to imply the pain you endure while learning trial by fire.
Countless players and coaches will be tested or testing something for the first time when more than pride and a place on the roster is on the line. And that will also be our next chance to watch — and judge — them for it.