July 22, 2024

AFC: Dominant storyline if every team appeared on ‘Hard Knocks’

The New York Giants will be under the “Hard Knocks” spotlight this summer and the AFC North will be during the in-season version of the popular HBO NFL series.

But what if every team spent time under the white-hot glare of “Hard Knocks” cameras during training camp? 

We asked Yardbarker NFL writers to choose the dominant “Hard Knocks” storyline for every team in the AFC.

AFC East

BUFFALO BILLS | Who becomes QB Josh Allen’s No. 1 target? | After losing WRs Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis, who combined for 1,929 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2023, one of Buffalo’s young pass-catchers must emerge as Allen’s new security blanket. The Bills bolstered their receiving corps to offset the losses, including signing Curtis Samuel and drafting Keon Coleman, though familiar faces Khalil Shakir and TE Dalton Kincaid might quickly establish themselves as the two-time Pro Bowler’s primary targets.

MIAMI DOLPHINS | QB Tua Tagovailoa’s looming contract extension | Several of the league’s top QBs have signed massive, long-term deals this offseason, leaving Tagovailoa as one of the next in line to secure one. Tagovailoa has the numbers to warrant an extension, as he’s thrown for 12,639 yards and 81 touchdowns in four seasons, but his lack of playoff success raises doubts about whether he’s truly worthy of a huge deal.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS | The new “Patriots Way” | With Bill Belichick out as head coach in New England, the team is shifting away from his “do your job” philosophy under new HC Jerod Mayo. During his introductory news conference, Mayo talked about changing the culture, and he’s already done that during minicamp by letting rookies wear their actual jersey numbers during practice.

NEW YORK JETS | QB Aaron Rodgers’ wild offseason | Somehow, Rodgers’ return from last season’s Achilles tear would take a backseat if the Jets were featured on “Hard Knocks” for the second consecutive offseason. HBO couldn’t write a better script if it tried, considering Rodgers skipped mandatory minicamp due to a trip and was in contention to be presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s running mate. — Colum Dell

AFC West 

DENVER BRONCOS | Will rookie QB Bo Nix prove he’s future of franchise? |
The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider reported Nix made a strong impression through the first two months of the offseason, possibly giving the 12th overall pick of the draft an advantage over Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson. If Nix wins the starting job, head coach Sean Payton needs the 24-year-old to show he’s the answer, or his seat could get a little warmer.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS | The return of their potent downfield passing attack | QB Patrick Mahomes, who posted a career low in average target depth (6.8 yards) in 16 games last season, said head coach Andy Reid has encouraged him to throw deep throughout the team’s offseason program. Free-agent signee Marquise Brown, a wideout, should help K.C. produce more big passing plays, as he and Mahomes flashed “promising chemistry” in OTAs and minicamp, per The Athletic’s Nate Taylor.

LAS VEGAS RAIDERS | Does QB Aidan O’Connell keep starting job? | On ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on Sunday, Jeremy Fowler said O’Connell “probably” has a “slight edge” over free-agent signee Gardner Minshew II. Still, sixth-year veteran Minshew is more experienced than second-year passer O’Connell and may usurp him if he gets a grip on Vegas’ offense in training camp.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS | New coach Jim Harbaugh’s impact | It’s clear players believe Harbaugh will deliver instant results, with edge rusher Joey Bosa saying he’s “the final piece” the Bolts need to get over the hump, via the team website. Can Harbaugh turn L.A. into a legitimate Super Bowl contender in one offseason? — Clark Dalton

AFC North 

BALTIMORE RAVENS | Will Lamar Jackson, Ravens finally win when it matters? | The Ravens boasted the NFL’s best regular-season record (13-4) last season but fell short in the playoffs once again. Baltimore needs Jackson to improve his postseason record (2-4), which continues to be a negative mark on the touted QB’s resume, which is highlighted by two NFL MVP awards. 

CINCINNATI BENGALS | Joe Burrow’s comeback | Burrow suffered another season-ending injury (wrist) in 2023, opening himself up to constant questions about his health. If he is fully healthy, the Bengals will have another shot at winning their first Super Bowl. Could Burrow become the second player in NFL history, matching Chad Pennington, as a two-time NFL Comeback Player of the Year?

CLEVELAND BROWNS | Deshaun Watson’s last chance | Since joining the Browns, Watson has played in just 12 games due to suspension and injuries and has thrown only 14 touchdown passes. Cleveland has surrounded Watson with the talent he needs to return to his 2020 form, when he led the league in passing yards (4,823) with Houston. If he struggles, the team could soon look for his replacement.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS | Is Russell Wilson or Justin Fields the future? | Wilson and Fields are upgrades over what the Steelers had in 2023 when quarterbacks Kenny Pickett, Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky threw for a combined 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. However, both QBs have much to prove after disappointing campaigns with their former teams. Could the Steelers be back at square one if neither performs well? — Aaron Becker

AFC South 

HOUSTON TEXANS | Will Stefon Diggs still have diva tendencies with new team? | Diggs’ poor attitude and sideline outbursts often made headlines in Buffalo and presumably contributed to his exit from the Bills in the offseason. Did his fractured relationship with quarterback Josh Allen become a problem? And now that he’s in a new city, will Diggs revert to old tendencies when things don’t go his way?

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS | Anthony Richardson’s road to recovery after surgery | The Colts have a lot riding on Richardson’s surgically repaired right throwing shoulder. After he sat out the final practice of mandatory minicamp with shoulder soreness, alarm bells may have gone off at Colts HQ. Indy signed 16-year veteran Joe Flacco to back up Richardson this season, perhaps an indication the Colts are a little more concerned about Richardson than they’re letting on.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS | How Trevor Lawrence handles being NFL’s highest-paid QB | Seemingly everyone has an opinion on Lawrence making $55M per season despite not having the kind of stats to justify such a high salary. This may be the most motivated Lawrence has been heading into a season, and his drive to prove his doubters wrong would make great television.

TENNESSEE TITANS | How does QB Will Levis handle being “the guy?” | Tennessee did its best to surround Levis with plenty of talent this offseason, signing running back Tony Pollard, receivers Calvin Ridley and Tyler Boyd, offensive linemen Lloyd Cushenberry and Saahdiq Charles and drafting tackle JC Latham. If the 2024 season goes sideways, the Titans could have a high draft pick next year and entertain drafting a QB early, which makes this season an audition of sorts for Levis. — Michael Gallagher