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Who will be the 'Hard Knocks' team?

The moment of clarity is fast approaching for NFL fans holding out hope their team will be featured on the next season of Hard Knocks.

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Around The League will again provide episode recaps when the ninth installment of the acclaimed HBO series kicks off in August. In the meantime, let's offer up our best educated guess on which team might be chosen.

Disclaimer: Yes, Roger Goodell signs my paycheck, but no, I don't have any inside information on the Hard Knocks process. It's possible Booya, the guy who makes sandwiches at the office cafeteria, is more plugged in on Shield initiatives than I am.

Consider me a fan of the show just like you. Let's do a Brian Baldinger pinky shake on it.

Who can duck the cameras?


Under new rules implemented by the NFL last year, teams can avoid Hard Knocks if they fall under any of three exemptions: 1) A first-year head coach is in place; 2) A playoff berth in the past two seasons; 3) A Hard Knocks appearance in the past 10 years.

Under those guidelines, the following teams are excused if they so wish: Dolphins ( HK 2012), Patriots (playoffs), Jets ( HK 2010), Ravens (playoffs), Bengals (playoffs, HK 2009, 2013), Browns (new coach), Texans (new coach, playoffs), Colts (playoffs), Titans (new coach), Broncos (playoffs), Chiefs (playoffs, HK 2007), Chargers (playoffs), Cowboys ( HK 2008), Eagles (playoffs), Redskins (new coach, playoffs), Lions (new coach), Packers (playoffs), Vikings (new coach, playoffs), Falcons (playoffs), Panthers (playoffs), Saints (playoffs), Buccaneers (new coach), 49ers (playoffs) and Seahawks (playoffs).

Who can duck the cameras ... but might not


ProFootballTalk reported last week that Hard Knocks has "potential volunteers" in play this year. The reporting didn't go any further than that, but here are four teams that could get involved by choice.

Browns: If owner Jimmy Haslam really did play a key role in drafting Johnny Manziel, you know the Browns are all-in on the ride that goes with Johnny Football.

Titans: The Titans could wisely use the Hard Knocks platform to remind the world they exist.

Cowboys: Obviously, the Cowboys will be the first team to pull the Hard Knocks hat trick. (They've been on the show in 2002 and 2008.) It's just a matter of time.

Jets: The only fear for Gang Green here would be if HBO cameras accidentally stumbled upon the underground bunker where the real Rex Ryan is being held.

And while we're here, four teams we can safely eliminate from contention:

49ers: Jim Harbaugh would literally rather die.

Packers: You think HBO will be on board with five broadcast hours devoted to the burning charisma of Mike McCarthy?

Broncos: Though I could certainly see John Elway being open to cameras capturing his unquestioned genius, Peyton Manning wants no part of Liev Schreiber in his life.

Patriots: I guess it could happen.

The Elite Eight


OK, "elite" is a bit strong. Let's call them The Vulnerable Eight. These are the eight teams that are not protected by the NFL's bylaws and thus can be drafted whether they want to be Schreiber'd or not.

Since we're here: Teams need to relax about Hard Knocks. Appearing on the show doesn't mean Littlefinger is going to divulge your audible packages to the masses. The Bengals didn't flame out in the playoffs because an undrafted linebacker covered an underrated John Mayer single.

Hard Knocks has always prioritized the human element of the process first and foremost. Get over yourselves and get involved with the best NFL program in the history of the television medium.

Moving on ...

OK, now let's rank the eight "unprotected" teams in order of watchability. There's a good chance Hard Knocks will be working with one of the teams below:

8. Jaguars: Blake Bortles is one of the more compelling players to come out of the draft. Unfortunately, the Jags have already decided Chad Henne will be the team's starter. Also, no Brad Meester. No Brad Meester!!!

7. Raiders: The Silver and Black received some desperately needed reinforcements through free agency and the draft, but a good Hard Knocks team should have at least some tangible Super Bowl hope. You won't find it here.

6. Steelers: We like the idea of Hard Knocks getting access to a team that otherwise wouldn't allow such perceived tomfoolery. Mike Tomlin has always deserved his own reality show. Opportunity knocks.

5. Bills: The Bills could use some exposure, especially at a time when the team is up for sale and Jon Bon Jovi is growing in his villain mustache. It's too bad Mike Pettine moved on to Cleveland -- he was a regular scene-stealer during the Jets' Hard Knocks season of 2010.

4. Cardinals: Bruce Arians -- one of the best personalities in the coaching game -- would shine here. Great star power with Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson and Carson Palmer, plus an intriguing subplot tracking Honey Badger's recovery from knee surgery. Best of all, the potential for another Antonio Cromartie pop quiz!

3. Giants: Like Pittsburgh, the Giants fall under the "forbidden fruit" category of Hard Knocks. Football fans would be lucky to get an inside look at one of football's top organizations.

2. Rams: The charismatic Jeff Fisher is in the mix, as is general manager Les Snead -- owner of professional football's best hair. There's a nice collection of talent here, plus the obvious Michael Sam subplot. Bonus points for getting to watch the coaching staff talk itself into the Sam Bradford Era for five consecutive weeks.

Which leaves just one team ...


1. Bears: This just feels right. A franchise with a proud history, serious star power (Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery), a vaguely mysterious head coach (Marc Trestman) and a breakout comic presence (Martellus Bennett). And yes, there's legitimate Super Bowl promise involved.

Have I mentioned Jay Cutler? The NFL's most self-aware villain was born for this documentary format. Cutler's wife, meanwhile, has royal reality bloodlines and could knock Lauren Tannehill from her perch as the queen of "Hard Knocks."

Sign 'em up.

The latest "Around The League Podcast" predicts 2014 starting lineups and talks insider goodness with Bucky Brooks.

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