The Best Storylines Sure to Headline HBO's 'Hard Knocks' This Year
For the second time in five seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals will be the focus of HBO's critically acclaimed documentary series Hard Knocks.
The Bengals were also featured on the show in 2009. That season, Cincinnati went 10-6 and won the AFC North title.
The cast will be significantly different this time around—only 13 of the players on the 2009 roster are still with the Bengals—but there is still no shortage of storylines coming from one of the league's youngest and most talented rosters.
In the following slides, we'll present the storylines sure to headline this year's version of Hard Knocks.
The Margus Hunt Story
With or without the HBO cameras at camp, Bengals second-round pick Margus Hunt was going to be one of the more fascinating storylines of training camp.
Now, even casual football fans will get to know a lot more about the former Junior Olympics champion in discus and shot put.
Hunt, who turns 26 years old in July, grew up in Estonia and only started playing football once he enrolled at Southern Methodist University. His measurables are off-the-charts impressive; Hunt is 6'8" and 277 pounds with a 4.6 40-yard dash, and he blocked 17 kicks while at SMU, two short of the NCAA record.
However, Hunt is still learning the game, and there were times in college when he disappeared despite his ridiculous combination of size and athleticism.
The Bengals will use this summer's training camp to help mold their raw, freakish athlete into a potentially dominant NFL defensive lineman. HBO's cameras will ensure Hunt's journey from junior gold medalist to NFL second-round pick is well told.
Introduction of Geno Atkins
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins remains the most dominant defensive player most causal NFL fans have never heard of.
If nothing else, Hard Knocks should give NFL Films a chance to make sure that's no longer the case.
During a season in which J.J. Watt produced arguably the most impressive season ever from a 3-4 defensive end, and Von Miller and Aldon Smith both took aim at the sack record, Atkins also dominated week in and week out.
According to Pro Football Focus, Atkins finished 2012 as the second-highest graded defensive player in the NFL, trailing only Watt. His final grade was the highest ever among defensive tackles since PFF started grading players in 2008.
Atkins has been named to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams in each of the last two seasons, but he's still a relative unknown among the biggest stars in the game.
Given the opportunity to fix this reality, Hard Knocks would be doing its viewers a major injustice if Atkins wasn't a heavily featured member of the show. The casual NFL fan should know the dominant defensive tackle by the end of the summer.
Are there a combination of NFL coordinators who bring more to the table than Cincinnati's Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer (pictured above)?
Gruden, as many know, is the younger brother of former Super Bowl-winning head coach Jon Gruden. While Jon has built a new career as a broadcaster, Jay has become the new star of the family as the Bengals offensive coordinator.
His work with Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati offense has made him an attractive head-coaching option for teams in recent years.
The same can be said for the fiery Zimmer.
Since joining the Bengals as defensive coordinator in 2008, Cincinnati has finished in the top 10 of points allowed three times. The last time HBO was in town (2009), the Bengals were sixth in points and fourth in yards allowed.
Such impressive work has also led to interest in Zimmer as a potential NFL head coach.
On Hard Knocks, expect Gruden and Zimmer to add to their resumes as head-coaching candidates. Alongside current Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, Gruden and Zimmer could be the leading personalities this summer.
James Harrison's Defensive Transition
Speaking of personality, new Bengals linebacker James Harrison figures to have no shortage of opinions or one-liners for the HBO cameras.
While his entertainment value is obvious, Harrison also brings an interesting football storyline to the table.
Once one of the game's most dominant pass-rushers as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Pittsburgh, Harrison is now transitioning to the outside of Zimmer's 4-3 defensive front.
It's not an impossible change, and the Bengals are likely to make the transition as easy on Harrison as possible with plenty of blitzing opportunities. Still, Harrison will be learning a new position and working in a different defensive front this summer.
Expect Hard Knocks to document this fascinating transition, with Harrison's colorful commentary likely to be featured throughout the camp.
Andre Smith, Take 2
Back in 2009, Andre Smith was a holdout first-round pick and a major part of HBO's production.
Fast forward five years, and he may already be presenting another storyline for Hard Knocks.
While the Bengals gave Smith a three-year, $18 million deal in late April, the massive right tackle missed all of Cincinnati's OTAs before skipping a mandatory minicamp earlier this month.
There is currently no reason to believe Smith will miss the start of training camp as he did in 2009, when he held out because of contract issues.
However, conditioning has always been an issue for the 335-pound tackle, and it should be interesting to see what kind of physical shape Smith arrives in when he reports for camp.
The Bengals paid good money to bring back one of the game's better right tackles. Smith's absence from early offseason workouts will present another opportunity for HBO to explore the former first-round pick's physical condition.
Pacman's Newest Legal Situation
Bengals defensive back Adam "Pacman" Jones is no stranger to run-ins with the law, and his most recent arrest will ensure that Hard Knocks has at least one talking point in this realm.
According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Jones was arrested last week after reportedly assaulting a young woman at a Cincinnati establishment. He has since pleaded not guilty and has claimed self defense as the reason for the assault.
Regardless of Jones' story and where it heads between now and then, HBO will likely want to hear and document everything it can on the situation.
The "Bengals are thugs" narrative is mostly lazy and overdone, but Jones' arrest can't be overlooked. It would be a surprise if we didn't hear plenty about it this summer.
Personalities and Position Battles
Former receiver Chad Johnson won't be walking through those doors this summer. But even without Ochocinco, the Bengals still offer plenty of personality storylines for training camp.
Receiver A.J. Green is a soft-spoken but up-and-coming superstar. Atkins deserves plenty of spotlight. Even a guy like Vontaze Burfict, a former undrafted free agent who figures to start at linebacker in 2013, has an interesting story to tell.
There's also the rookie class, which is highlighted by Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, UNC running back Gio Bernard, Hunt and Georgia safety Shawn Williams.
And while personalities still drive the show, a number of position battles will be worth tuning in for.
Roles at running back, center, tight end and safety each figure to get settled in training camp. The same goes for backup quarterback, linebacker and the depth chart at wide receiver.
Hard Knocks is a great look inside an NFL team for a number of reasons. But personalities and roster battles still make or break the show, and Cincinnati appears to have no shortage of either for this summer's version.
Meet Mr. Dalton
Back in 2009, the Bengals were firmly under the control of quarterback Carson Palmer.
Five years later, Cincinnati's new head honcho will get his opportunity to introduce himself to the world.
Former second-round pick Andy Dalton, who has led the Bengals to the postseason in each of his first two NFL seasons, enters the 2013 season with both security in his job and pressure to improve. HBO will offer an opportunity to get to know Dalton before his very important third season.
Dalton is a comfortable 19-13 in two seasons, and his passer rating improved from 80.4 as a rookie to 87.4 in 2012. However, the Bengals have been bounced in the postseason in back-to-back years in large part due to Dalton's failures.
For Cincinnati to compete among the AFC's powerhouses (and the overall talent is certainly there to do so), the Bengals need Dalton to take another big step in Year 3. There is quiet confidence in Dalton, but also unnerving worry, as the Bengals can't be considered true Super Bowl contenders unless Dalton elevates himself as a quarterback, especially in the postseason.
The Bengals will expect Dalton to make that jump in 2013. But before he gets that chance, viewers will have the opportunity to learn more about the Bengals starting quarterback in training camp.
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