7 story lines to watch for Dallas Cowboys' latest turn on 'Hard Knocks'

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Unsurprising as the selection of the Dallas Cowboys to participate – for a record third time – in this summer's installment of "Hard Knocks" was, the decision by HBO and NFL Films to feature "America's Team" once again is also wholly justifiable.

For starters, plenty of metrics suggest the Cowboys are America's most popular – and maybe least popular – sports team. With so much organic interest, why try to generate artificial buzz by forcing the spotlight onto one of this year's other meh alternatives – the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos and New York Giants? (League rules exempt teams from appearing on "Hard Knocks" if they have a first-year head coach, reached the playoffs in either of the previous two seasons or participated in the show in the previous 10 years.)

Cowboys QB Dak Prescott (4) and RB Ezekiel Elliott figure to be leading men in this summer's installment of "Hard Knocks."
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott (4) and RB Ezekiel Elliott figure to be leading men in this summer's installment of "Hard Knocks."

Yet Dallas, previously featured on "Hard Knocks" in 2002 and 2008, should provide more intrigue in 2021 than past protagonists like quarterback Quincy Carter, coach Dave Campo or then-unknown receiver Danny Amendola.

So why should you tune into HBO on Tuesday nights this August?

1. Dak's back

One of the league's overriding storylines this year is sure to be the return of quarterback Dak Prescott from a gruesome ankle dislocation that cost him 11 games last season. He's already had an eventful 2021, signing a four-year, $160 million contract extension while returning to the practice field after saying he's "buried" his injury. But Prescott has yet to go full speed in 11-on-11 drills and certainly hasn't tested his surgically repaired leg in game action. More than any factor, his recovery is likely to define Dallas' 2021 campaign, and NFL Films' cameras are certain to be trained on his every move.

2. Is Zeke back?

Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys' three-time Pro Bowl tailback, is coming off his worst NFL season, his 65.3 rushing yards per game in 2020 more than 30 yards off his career average (96.5 ypg) entering the year. He was certainly hindered by the absence of Prescott and a battered offensive line, yet Elliott was also criticized for failing to carry the offense as speculation swirled that he'd lost a step. A six-year, $90 million extension – the richest in the league among running backs in terms of total compensation – kicks in this year, even though Elliott is suddenly struggling to crack lists ranking the NFL's top five backs. However he's drawn rave reviews this offseason, Prescott saying, “He’s in the best shape of his life. Looking fast. ... When Zeke’s healthy and Zeke’s doing his thing, he’s the best running back in the league." No. 1 backs typically don't see many preseason snaps, but Elliott's camp mindset alone could be revealing.

3. Has CeeDee Lamb arrived?

A first-round pick in 2020, he comes off a solid inaugural season (74 catches for 935 yards) – even if Lamb was overshadowed by fellow rookie wideouts Justin Jefferson and, arguably, Chase Claypool from a national perspective. Conferred with the No. 88 jersey made famous by legendary Dallas receivers Drew Pearson, Michael Irvin and Dez Bryant, Lamb – he was often compared to DeAndre Hopkins during the pre-draft process a year ago – should have an opportunity to build rapport with Prescott, especially if veteran Amari Cooper's ankle continues to respond slowly after multiple offseason surgeries. Pass catchers often make significant improvement in their second seasons, and Lamb's performance in camp could foreshadow the rate of his progress.

4. How's that defense look?

The Cowboys surrendered a franchise record 473 points in 2020, 37 more than any other year in their 61-season existence. Enter Dan Quinn, whose most recent gigs were Seahawks defensive coordinator during the "Legion of Boom" years and Falcons head coach. Quinn's signature effervescence has been a breath of fresh air, and his philosophy and simplified scheme should better suit this roster's talent – including dynamic first-round linebacker Micah Parsons. "Hard Knocks" should offer glimpses of how the transition is going a year after deposed coordinator Mike Nolan's installation fell flat for various reasons.

5. Ambitious itinerary

Even if camp drudgery eventually permeates "Hard Knocks," the scenery shouldn't get dull. The Cowboys will fly to their temporary home in Oxnard, California, on July 20; play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 5; participate in a joint practice with the Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 7; face the Cardinals in Arizona on Aug. 13 in their second exhibition ... all before returning to Texas for the balance of preseason – which will feature four games for Dallas at a time when most teams now only have to play three.

6. August surprise(s)

"Hard Knocks" always provides the unexpected, whether it's an unknown football personality or behind-the-scenes vignettes that the public and reporters are rarely privy to. Parsons seems to have a personality that could thrust him into the limelight, but it's an even better bet one of his fellow rookies – likely one clinging to the bottom of the roster – will star in his own subplot. (Amendola was an undrafted player in 2008 who never played a regular-season snap for Dallas, but "Hard Knocks" certainly increased his visibility before he embarked on a professional career that may yet extend into the 2021 season.) Might loquacious free agent cornerback Richard Sherman, who played for Quinn in Seattle, latch on with the Cowboys after expressing a desire to continue his career with a contender ... and maybe in a place where he could serve as a player-coach given his experience in this scheme? Don't rule it out.

7. Jerry's World

Lastly, expect a prominent role from Dallas owner Jerry Jones. Will he make practice field entries from his helicopter? Maybe provide a tour of "The Star," the Cowboys' state-of-the-art training facility, complete with a 12,000-seat indoor stadium? How much air time will be devoted to Jones' children and grandchildren, many increasingly visible around the family business – most notably son Stephen Jones (chief operating officer, executive vice president and director of player personnel) and daughter Charlotte Jones (executive vice president and chief brand officer). In his roles as team president and general manager, how often will we see Jerry Jones' ending a fringe player's dream and/or interacting with key performers like Prescott and Elliott? And what will Jones' "Hard Knocks" message be to second-year coach Mike McCarthy – don't expect him to be on camera beyond any minimum obligation – and a roster widely perceived as the best in the middling NFC East? It should be worth the price of admission ... or at least your HBO Max subscription.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Hard Knocks': 7 story lines to watch for Dallas Cowboys