Two years ago, the Hard Knocks cameras couldn't get enough of Houston Texans wrecking ball J.J. Watt, especially when he was getting in extra workouts or delivering motivational speeches. Watt was already a megastar before the NFL Films crews arrived, but two summers earlier the HBO viewing audience got a lot more familiar with John Connor and Orson Charles, two lesser-known fullbacks battling for one job in Cincinnati.
This year, Hard Knocks comes to Tampa when the Buccaneers open training camp on July 28. Over the next month, the visiting camera crew will shine a light on some of team's biggest names and uncover some of the Bucs other charismatic figures. The show isn't scripted, however, so we won't know for sure who will emerge as must-see TV characters until it airs on Tuesday nights in August.
However, we can make some educated guesses, based on what we already know about current Buccaneer players, coaches and administrators. And that's our goal here as Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and I gather one more time to finish our pre-game "Roundtable Week" here on Buccaneers.com. This year's Hard Knocks series is almost a dead lock to be entertaining, especially to Buccaneer fans, but who exactly will be the primary entertainers? To put it simply: Who will be the stars of Hard Knocks in 2017?
Continuing our established rotation, Joe will go first on this one, followed by Andrew and me. We'll each make two picks.
Joe Kania: Jameis Winston
I've had the first pick in a handful of roundtables, but this is by far the easiest selection I've made. In terms of his on-field performance alone, Winston would be the star of this year's Hard Knocks. When he arrived in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers had just finished a 2-14 season. After two years, he helped the team turn the tables and finish with a winning record. He started off his career with back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons, something that has never happened before, and already has a Pro Bowl appearance.
When you factor in Winston's personality off the field, we have the perfect storm. He's charismatic, vocal and outspoken. Winston's the guy you find in the center of the pre-game huddle, sometimes doing a whip dance with his helmet in his hand. Or turning his pregame speech upside down so everything rhymes.
Despite the impressive beginning to Winston's career, there are many NFL fans who haven't had the opportunity to watch Winston regularly. They are in for a treat. Andrew Norton: Kwon AlexanderAnyone who follows the Buccaneers closely knows Kwon Alexander. They know how much of a leader he is inside the huddle and how passionate he is about the game of football. They also know that he can back it all up, putting up some crazy numbers – for instance, leading the entire league in solo tackles last season. Outside of the Buccaneers' fan base, he still seems to be a relative unknown. Hopefully with some Hard Knocks facetime, that will be remedied.
Photos from LB Kwon Alexander's 2016 campaign.
Not only will the spotlight be great just to spread his image and increase some awareness about Alexander outside of the Tampa Bay area, it will also show off one of the team's strongest personalities. His intensity and passion about the game is infectious. As the QB of the defense, his attitude mirrors Winston's in many ways. He's a leader. He's an inspirer. And, man, is he fun to watch when he is out there with some pads on.
The world needs to get to know Kwon Alexander. When they do, they will have a new favorite NFL player.
Scott Smith: Dirk Koetter
I don't think Coach Koetter wants to be the star of Hard Knocks. I'm just not sure he can avoid it.
Photos from Dirk Koetter's first season as head coach.
As occasionally comes out during post-practice press briefings, Koetter has a sly sense of humor. Is that also the case when he's surrounded by players on the practice field? I have to admit, I don't really know. But we're all going to find out in a little over a month. The NFL Films camera crew will have plenty of players and coaches mic'd up during camp practices, and that's sure to include Koetter on several occasions. I don't think Koetter will play it up for the cameras, but I don't think he'll sway from his normal approach, either. You're going to get a real look at how the Bucs' head coach interacts with players and assistant coaches, on and off the field. I think it will be fascinating.
I'm also fairly certain that the one aspect of camp and the preseason that Koetter would prefer was not shared on Hard Knocks is the necessary evil of trimming the roster form 90 players to 53. That is a tough and very personal time for players whose NFL dreams are being, at best, delayed. Still, those moments are a staple of every Hard Knocks season and will surely be so again this summer, with a camera in Koetter's office. Those moments may be uncomfortable, and more than a little sad, but they will likely also be riveting.
Joe Kania: Gerald McCoy
Those who remember Dini's Den, Gerald McCoy's webshow on Buccaneers.com, know that the team's standout defensive tackle isn't camera-shy. For a player who has made five consecutive Pro Bowls, McCoy can be approachable, easy-going and friendly – when the time permits. I'm sure within five minutes of the first show, he'll have a monologue about superheroes, comic books or video games.
Top photos from Gerald McCoy's 2016 campaign.
This kind of seems to be a theme here, but appearing on Hard Knocks will give the entire world a first-hand look at just how special of a player, and person, McCoy can be. Despite being one of the NFL's most dominant defensive tackles, he's unfortunately never been to the playoffs.
I'm excited for the fans to get a look inside Gerald's life, but I'm also thrilled that McCoy will finally be getting some of the attention he deserves.
Andrew Norton: Vernon Hargreaves
Hargreaves being a second-year starter makes him a great player to follow. His relationship with fellow cornerback Brent Grimes, his favorite NFL player growing up, is another great piece of info to build a story around. Even more, the camera could be drawn to him by just how much of a force he has been in the offseason so far, creating plenty of turnovers and highlight-reel moments during mini-camp and OTAs. But, most of all, his passion for the game speaks (or rather laughs) for itself. Reason number one for Hargreaves to become a Hard Knocks star…
Scott Smith: Stevie Tu'ikolovatu
I challenge anyone not to laugh when watching that Hargreaves video. It never gets old.
As for my pick, I was thinking about going with McCoy before Joe took him, and I also wonder if Hard Knocks might find a way to showcase Robert Ayers's personality. He's everyone's favorite player interview during the season; I wonder if he's just as entertaining while in the heat of a padded practice.
Instead, I went with a somewhat random selection in Tu'ikolovatu. Here's my thought: One of the things Hard Knocks likes to do is showcase a couple players who seem to be on the bubble for making the roster, a la those Cincinnati fullbacks mentioned above. Sometimes they even follow them off campus to get a glimpse at their personal lives, which a couple years ago led to that wonderful clip of Atlanta rookie Tyler Start getting the call that let him know he made the team. (The person making that call, by the way, was Bucs' Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith, who was the Falcons' head coach at the time.)
We'll probably see a couple similar storylines this summer with the Buccaneers. The problem is, at this point it's pretty hard to predict which young players will be featured in those storylines. A couple undrafted rookies make it just about every year, but I honestly don't know if the best bet in that regard is linebacker Richie Brown, tight end Antony Auclair or somebody else. So I went with Tu'ikolovatu, who is a seventh-round draft pick, just like Starr was in 2014.
Buc fans don't really know Tu'ikolovatu yet. I don't either. There are some parts of his backstory, however, that are already quite interesting, such as the time he and his wife spent living out of their car and traveling around while he was preparing to join the USC football team. I'm guessing it's the kind of thing that Hard Knocks can pick up on and develop. I hope so. And I hope it ends with him getting the same kind of phone call that Starr got while out on a walk with his fiancée.