What to Expect on HBO’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Jets

On August 11th, HBO’s football reality series, “Hard Knocks” will begin its seventh season and for the first time in team history will feature the New York Jets.

For HBO and NFL Films, there is arguably no better team to feature right now than the Jets, who have become one of the most exciting teams to watch since hiring coach Rex Ryan last year, and arguably could be the best squad ever featured on the training camp reality show.

Not since the 2001 Baltimore Ravens were featured in the debut season of Hard Knocks has a Super Bowl contender (in the Ravens’ case, the defending champions) agreed to be the subjects of the show.

In 2002, a bad Cowboys team was on the show. Ditto for the ’04 Jaguars and the ’07 Chiefs. The 2008 Dallas Cowboys made a repeat performance on the show, albeit mostly with a different roster and coaching staff.

Last year, it was the Cincinnati Bengals coming off a dismal 2008 season who were featured on the training camp documentary. It was a success for all parties, as Hard Knocks had its highest ratings ever and won a Sports Emmy, and the Bengals rebounded to make the playoffs, before losing in the first round to the Jets.

I’ve previously looked at the Jets potential position battles this summer, and like most training camps, position battles will likely make up a lot of the drama. Let’s look ahead to some possible storylines to look for when Hard Knocks kicks off August 11th…

The Battle for the Left Guard Spot between Matt Slauson & Vladimir Ducasse

After putting up the best team rushing performance in franchise history, the Jets offensive line proved that they are a well-oiled machine capable of greatness, especially when considering young stars D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, two guys that haven’t hit their prime yet.

With Damien Woody and Brandon Moore anchoring the right side, the left guard spot is the only place on the line that will have a new starter after the release of Alan Faneca. The job will likely come down to rookie 2nd rounder Vladimir Ducasse and second-year man Matt Slauson. At this point in time, there isn’t a real front-runner yet either.

The offensive line is easily the Jets biggest strength on offense, so it’s going to be a huge storyline for the HBO crew to follow to see a young first-year starter earning an extremely important position.

Sure, a guard battle isn’t as sexy as a quarterback controversy, but the success of this offense starts and ends with those five guys up front. It’s not a coincidence that all the good teams have good O-lines and the bad teams do not.

The Mixing and Matching of the Defensive Backs, including Darrelle Revis

One of the staples of the Jets’ top-ranked pass defense last year was All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, and the defensive scheme usually called for Revis to cover the number one wide receiver. That is, until the playoffs began, and teams expected Revis to cover the number one receiver.

Against Cincinnati and San Diego, (not as much against the Colts, though) Revis was used all over the field against different players, seemingly throwing off Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers. This year, the Jets added former Charger Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson out of Boise State to form a very formidable trio of cornerbacks.

With Jim Leonhard, the field general on the defense (he calls the plays and audibles for the D) entrenched at one of the safety spots, there is uncertainty as to who will be getting the snaps on the other side, as well as in the multiple DB packages the Jets often play.

Eric Smith and Brodney Pool will likely get most of the snaps at safety, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dwight Lowery see some snaps at a hybrid CB/S DB spot on some plays.

The beauty of having such talented man-to-man cornerbacks, as well as good coverage overall in the secondary, is that it allows the Jets to move Darrelle Revis around to different spots on the field, with different assignments, which could make life even more difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

Speaking of Revis…

The Potential Distractions of Contract Negotiations

It’s no secret that the Jets intend to lock up their “core four” players before their respective contracts are up, those players being Revis, Mangold, Ferguson, and linebacker David Harris.

However, out of those four, only Harris and Mangold are actually in the last year of their contracts. Harris will be a restricted free agent after the season and Mangold will be an unrestricted free agent.

As much as the Jets want to keep this roster together, there are a lot of players in the last year of their deals this year, as the Jets have compiled a good mix of short-term and long-term players to try to compete to win a Super Bowl with a potential lock-out and new CBA possibly on the horizon.

Revis, despite having three years left on his deal, seems most likely to sign a new deal prior to the season, and the last thing the Jets need displayed for all the world to see is the strain of contract negotiations being an off-field distraction.

The media has already had a field day with the Revis negotiations, and thankfully the other Jets who are due haven’t made many public comments about their displeasure with their current deals, other than a comment here and there from Nick Mangold.

The Jets aren’t the only team in the NFL who have potentially messy contract negotiations on the mind, but they will be the only team whose dirty laundry is going to be fair game in front of a crew of reality television cameras.

It’ll definitely be interesting to see how much, or how little, the off-field business part of the NFL takes away from the on-field preparation during training camp.

The New Additions on Offense and Their Impact on QB Mark Sanchez

Mark Sanchez had a roller coaster season as a rookie in 2009, and as hard as it is to believe, he’s now played more games in the NFL than he did in college at USC. Sanchez had some growing pains as a rookie, throwing multiple interceptions in some games and looking a little lost as the Jets struggled to a 4-6 start.

But with the strength of the overpowering rushing attack and that ferocious defense that set the tone, a more confident Sanchez played his best football down the stretch, as the Jets won seven of their last eight games to reach the AFC Championship game, where Sanchez had perhaps his finest passing game of the season.

Needless to say, the Jets expect Sanchez to fly higher in 2010, as the training wheels will come off and Sanchez will get to play with a few new weapons, as well as some trusty returning favorites.

Gone is locker room leader Thomas Jones, replaced by second-year back Shonn Greene, who led all NFL players in rushing yards in the postseason, despite only playing in two full games before being injured early against the Colts which arguably ended the Jets chances at the upset.

LaDainian Tomlinson and Joe McKnight will share third-down duties to relieve the injury prone Greene to try to keep him as fresh as possible for the stretch run.

Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards will attend their first training camp under Rex Ryan, and they’ll combine with cagey veteran Jerricho Cotchery to give the Jets three number-one receivers.

Not to mention, Dustin Keller, the third-year tight end, scored a touchdown in each of the three playoff games and has become a pretty good blocker in the running game.

Rex Ryan and his coaching staff will try to mold all the new faces into the Jets family, and if there’s anyway that can quiet the rumors about a lack of team chemistry, it’s the big man running the show.

Which bring us to the final thing to watch for…

Rex Ryan Being Rex Ryan

Ah, Rex Ryan. He’s a pretty polarizing figure, but for the life of me I’m not sure why. I think any one who has a problem with Rex Ryan, quite frankly, has a problem with themselves.

I’ve been a huge fan of Ryan since his days as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, when I could see how much his defensive players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Bart Scott would treat him with the respect and admiration usually bestowed upon head coaches.

The only other time a coordinator was treated like that was ironically enough, Buddy Ryan on the ’85 Bears, who got lifted on his players’ shoulders along with head coach Mike Ditka after their Super Bowl victory.

In the era of political correctness and deceptive, half-hearted answers, Rex Ryan is a breath of fresh air from the typical boring, run-of-the-mill coach. He’s funny, he’s goofy, he’s a straight shooter who truly knows how to keep the mood light.

But with that bubbly, infectious personality also comes a defensive wizard, a true phenom in the coaching world who grew up speaking football as a second language growing up with Buddy Ryan and twin brother Rob, himself the Browns’ defensive coordinator now.

Make no mistake, Rex Ryan’s defensive schemes are no laughing matter. He came in last year almost entirely with incumbent players from the Eric Mangini era. He installed his packages, brought in Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard to teach and run the system, and the Jets ended up with the top-ranked defense.

They intend to be better this year, and Rex Ryan and his coaching staff will make sure that the Jets improve on everything they can on offense, defense and special teams.

If there’s one thing to watch on Hard Knocks, it’s going to be Rex Ryan, who is destined to be a breakout star of the show. It’s just Rex being Rex. He can have fun and be serious at the same time. A true players coach who earns the respect of all his players, old and new.

Hard Knocks has never had a coach with the personality like Rex Ryan, and it should be an absolute joy to watch unfold on HBO.

(This article was written to be a slideshow for Bleacher Report, in case you want to read it as such)

Edit: OK this is too cool, my B/R version of this piece was linked to by NFL.com‘s Around the Web blogs. Awesome!

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