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Three reasons why Cowboys could be legit Super Bowl contenders; top five off-ball linebackers

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

But first, a look why this round of offseason Cowboys hype could actually be merited ...

Hope springs eternal across the parity-driven NFL, but nowhere more so than in Dallas.

Yes, offseason Cowboys hype is beginning to dominate the headlines once again. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the franchise is about to make its third appearance on "Hard Knocks." The annual HBO Sports/NFL Films docuseries will serve as an unofficial informercial for "America's Team." The constant attention will not only put the spotlight on Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott and Co., but it'll enable Jerry Jones to set the stage in terms of expectations. And actually, the Cowboys owner is already making his desires known.

"I would do anything known to man to get in a Super Bowl," Jones said Wednesday. "That's a fact. And there's nothing, in my mind, that can have a higher priority than that."

Those comments induced a predictable response outside of the Star: OK, but how about making the playoffs first?

It's a fair critique, obviously, considering the Cowboys have missed three of the past four postseasons. This organization hasn't exactly been on the cusp of Super Bowl Sunday of late. In fact, it's been a quarter century since the 'Boys last appeared on the game's biggest stage. This past season, they went 6-10 to finish third in a historically bad NFC East. So, yeah, I understand the chorus of Dallas doubters. In most instances, I'd immediately dismiss the notion of a sub-.500 team suddenly emerging as a true Super Bowl contender.

But after watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers snap a 12-season playoff drought -- with nine of those campaigns resulting in a losing record -- and win the franchise's second Lombardi Trophy, I believe there is indeed a path for Dallas to make a run at the ring this season.

Now, the odds are pretty long, and things must fall into place quickly for the Cowboys to surge to the top of the charts. But it can be done in a league that routinely sees underachievers reverse their fortunes in a hurry. With that in mind, here are three reasons why the Cowboys could emerge as legit Super Bowl contenders:

1) Dak is back. Newly compensated and freshly healed, Dak Prescott heads into the 2021 season with great expectations. I was in Oxford for the Cowboys' first practice on Thursday, and there is no disputing Dak's importance to Dallas when you watch the players work in drills. Prescott exudes a level of confidence as the unquestioned leader of the team that permeates throughout the organization. The presence of an elite quarterback not only inspires everyone, but it raises the level of expectations -- especially for the offensive unit.

While some will debate No. 4's merits as a blue-chip player, the sixth-year pro has posted comparable numbers to the gold standards at the position. Prescott's average of 321.8 passing yards per game since 2019 trumps Patrick Mahomes' mark (302.4) and ranks as the third-highest figure during a two-season span in NFL history (20-game minimum). In addition, he logged the second-most QB wins (40) by a starting quarterback from 2016 through 2019 (his four healthy seasons), behind only Tom Brady (47). And he also posted the second-highest passer rating ever by a quarterback through his first five seasons (97.3).

Sure, those numbers haven't translated into a Super Bowl win -- or even a deep playoff run -- but it is hard to dispute the QB's value to this roster. Last season, the Cowboys averaged 32.6 points per game in the five contests started by Prescott. In the other 11? That average plummeted to 21.1. Moreover, the offense ranked as the No. 1 unit in football through five weeks. And through the first four weeks -- i.e., the games Prescott started and finished -- Dak was on pace for a whopping 6,760 passing yards, a crazy stat that had people talking about Peyton Manning's single-season record of 5,477. Prescott totaled 1,690 yards in that first quarter of the season. Considering four of the previous passers with at least 1,470 pass yards through four games led their respective teams to a Super Bowl berth (Brady, 1,553, 2011; Mahomes, 1,510, 2019; Matt Ryan, 1,473, 2016; Manning, 1,470, 2013), it is understandable why his teammates view him as a difference-maker at the position. And it's understandable why the Cowboys gave him a four-year, $160 million contract this offseason. The 40 Million Dollar Man's impact on this loaded offense cannot be ignored.

After watching the Cowboys' first practice of training camp, it's easy to understand why the optimism's high on this squad. Prescott's passing prowess stands out, particularly on bootlegs and movement throws designed to add an explosive element to the passing game. The 'Boys are making a more concerted effort to push the ball down the field, with misdirection action playing a huge part in how they create big plays.

With Prescott showing no ill effects from the gruesome ankle injury that ended his 2020 season in Week 5, Dallas' offense could explode this fall.

2) Prescott isn't the only offensive stud with a clean bill of health. Prescott tops the marquee at Cowboys camp, but don't forget about the healthy returns of Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin. This O-line trio missed a combined 36 games last season, robbing the Cowboys' offense of its superpower at the point of attack.

"They're the most important, if you ask me," Prescott said last month, via Todd Archer of "From the time that I got drafted until now, this offense is built off of those guys. They're the three most veteran guys on this team, and that's for a reason. Those guys are walk-in Pro Bowl guys when they're healthy, future Hall of Famers. Just to have those three guys lead the five guys up front, everything starts with them. The run game, that allows the pass game to open up. When you have those guys back healthy, energized, it's special."

With the threesome returning to action to fortify an offensive line that was unable to control the trenches in their absence, the Cowboys could regain their winning ways behind an attack that dictates the terms to the defense. Sitting behind the wall up front, Prescott can throw the ball around the yard to one of the most explosive receiving corps in football. (Which defense has the cornerback depth to contain Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup?) Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore also has the option to hand the ball off to the fine RB duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard on an assortment of runs, if the Cowboys want to employ a "turtle" strategy that slows down the game. If the offensive line dominates the trenches utilizing the size, strength and physicality that made the unit one of the most feared in football just a few years ago, the Cowboys could pummel opponents with a barrage of body blows from Elliott between the tackles.

And before you bring up Zeke's disappointing 2020 campaign and start firing off fat jokes ... I had a chance to watch the two-time NFL rushing champ run through drills on Day 1; he is noticeably slimmer and trimmer than the heavy-legged version that showed up a season ago. Having just turned 26 years old, Elliott should still have plenty of tread left on the tires. If he rediscovers his game to complement Dallas' loaded passing attack, the Cowboys' offense could single-handedly spark the deep playoff run that Jones desires.

3) Dan Quinn's straightforward defense could be a game changer. Say what you will about DQ's failures at the end of his run in Atlanta, but the Cowboys' energetic defensive coordinator could be exactly what this team needed to get over the hump. Quinn's optimism, energy and demanding style can whip Dallas' D into shape while allowing a number of young defenders to quickly acclimate to the pro game. Sure, the thought of a historically bad unit abruptly reversing its fortunes under a defensive play-caller who struggled with his previous team might feel like a stretch, but Quinn's simplistic scheme and attention to fundamentals should help the Cowboys play respectable defense in 2021.

Part of the improvement should stem from fewer blown coverages and mental mistakes out of a defensive backfield that just couldn't grasp former DC Mike Nolan's complex tactics. Dallas' collection of inexperienced defenders in the secondary struggled with the constant adjustments, and their lack of communication frequently enabled receivers to run free. In addition, the lack of effort and attention to detail resulted in lackluster play and scattershot production from a unit that clearly underachieved a season ago. After Quinn trims down the playbook to feature a few basic concepts from a variety of different fronts, the Cowboys' D should look faster and more aggressive on the field, with players hustling from Point A to Point B with more urgency and clarity.

From a personnel standpoint, the move to a simplified defense should help a unit that could feature a handful of rookies and second-year defenders in prominent roles. On the island, the Cowboys could have three youngsters (second-year pro Trevon Diggs, and rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright) in key roles in their nickel and dime packages. Quinn will rely on rookie LBs Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox to add some speed and athleticism to a linebacker corps that struggled with speed in space last season. He will tap into their unique skills as second-level hybrids to create more havoc and chaos while using a straightforward scheme that features fronts and coverages utilized at the high school level.

With DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and the rest of the athletic front also benefiting from a simplified pass-rush plan, the Cowboys could win games with an opportunistic defense that benefits from playing opposing offenses forced to chase points by Dallas' explosive attack.

2021 NFL SEASON: Top five off-ball linebackers

The changing dynamics of the league have made it imperative for elite defenses to feature five-star playmakers with hit/run/cover ability at linebacker. Teams are swapping out old-school thumpers for ultra-athletic linebackers who possess A+ speed, quickness and burst between the tackles.

While there is still a place in the league for the downhill linebacker as a situational player, the football world covets second-level defenders who can stop the run, rush the passer and pick off passes in space. These "three-way" players come in different packages than their predecessors, with speed and athleticism valued at a premium over size and strength, but their overall explosiveness enables them to thrive as sideline-to-sideline roamers.

With the San Francisco 49ers signing Fred Warner to a five-year, $96 million extension this week, and the Colts expected to sign Darius Leonard to a blockbuster extension in the coming weeks, the league is starting to reward off-ball linebackers for their impact production and disruptive potential. Moreover, the monster paydays signal a shift in how the position is viewed and valued in the team-building process.

Given some time to chat with a few personnel folks and conduct a little tape study on the top off-ball linebackers in the NFL, here are my top five right now:

Bobby Wagner
Seattle Seahawks

The six-time All-Pro continues to fend off challengers as the undisputed champ at the position. Wagner is a stat stuffer with a strong nose for the ball and a knack for playmaking. The veteran has topped the 130-tackle mark in six of his nine seasons, including a spectacular 2020 campaign in which he registered 138 stops, seven tackles for loss, 11 QB hits, three sacks and a fumble recovery. As the ultimate disruptor in the middle of the field, Wagner is the prototypical off-ball linebacker that every defensive coordinator covets between the tackles. 

Darius Leonard
Indianapolis Colts

The ultra-athletic playmaker is a tackling machine with sideline-to-sideline range. Leonard has posted ridiculous production in his three-year career (416 total tackles, 15 sacks, nine forced fumbles, seven interceptions and 26 tackles for loss) while displaying off-the-chart instincts, awareness and playmaking ability. The two-time All-Pro is a destructive force whose ability to produce highlight plays is a game-changer for the Colts -- and the reason why he's expected to cash in soon.

Fred Warner
San Francisco 49ers

The All-Pro has become one of the league's most disruptive players as an off-ball playmaker. Warner has tallied at least 118 tackles in each of his three seasons, including a 2020 campaign in which he registered 125 stops with five tackles for loss, one sack and two interceptions. As a crafty ballhawk with outstanding instincts and awareness, the 49ers' designated disruptor is quickly challenging his fellow all-stars for the top spot on the list.

Devin White
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles unleashed White as a designated disruptor to propel the Buccaneers to the title last season. The 6-foot, 237-pounder wreaked havoc on opponents as a bull in a china shop on blitzes (9.0 sacks in 2020) while also gobbling up runners as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker. White's speed, athleticism and aggressiveness enabled Bowles' defense to overwhelm opponents with a variety of blitzes from the defensive mastermind. With the third-year pro settling in as a blue-chip performer, White is poised to climb the charts as a premier linebacker.

Roquan Smith
Chicago Bears

The swift linebacker and 2018 first-round pick has not yet received all-star accolades for his spectacular play, but scouts and coaches have a strong appreciation for Smith's dynamic game. The fourth-year pro patrols the middle of the field like a junkyard dog with a nasty attitude and ferocious bite. Smith has posted three straight seasons with at least 100 total tackles, including a 2020 campaign that also featured 18 tackles for loss. As an explosive defender with A+ athleticism, instincts and impeccable timing, Smith is arguably the best run-through playmaker in the league, as evidenced by his impressive career tackles for loss (31) and (11) sack totals. With Smith also displaying outstanding coverage skills and playmaking ability against the pass, the Bears' star linebacker is emerging as a disruptive force in the Windy City.

CAM AKERS: Rams in a real pickle without RB

Sean McVay is undoubtedly one of the best offensive minds in football -- but he faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career in trying to lead the Rams on a Super Bowl run without the offense's most valuable player

While many observers surely expected the Rams to build their offense around new franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford, I saw Cam Akers as the centerpiece of an attack driven by the running game and Akers' hybrid playmaking skills in the backfield. 

After all, that's how the offense was constructed during the Rams' Super Bowl run in 2018, with Todd Gurley -- who won Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 -- assembling an impressive two-year stint in which he was the most explosive offensive weapon in football.

Heading into this season, Akers was in line to take the offense to another level as a dynamic back with unique talents as an RB1/WR2. As a rookie in 2020, Akers gave the football world a glimpse of his potential during an impressive late-season stretch in which he amassed 708 scrimmage yards on 143 touches (132 rushes for 561 yards; 11 catches for 147 yards) in six games, including two playoff contests. The second-round pick's dazzling combination of balance, body control, vision and burst popped off the tape and made it easy for McVay to envision him as a key element in Los Angeles.

"You saw Darrell Henderson step up, Malcolm Brown was really consistent throughout the year, but Cam hit his stride at the right moments," McVay said back in February. "You could see he's always had a real and authentic confidence, but then as he's getting more and more comfortable for the different ways that we were able to utilize him, I think he can come alive in the pass game. I think he can continue to play at a high level. Really, I think he's an every-down back. I think he's a special player."

The verbal bouquets continued throughout the offseason, as McVay explored the possibilities of utilizing Akers as a multi-faceted playmaker out of the backfield during summer workouts.

"He's obviously a great runner, but he's got ability as a pass catcher coming from the backfield, and we can displace him and put him in the slot or the outside-receiver location," McVay said, via Kevin Modesti of the Los Angeles Daily News. "There's not any limitations, but we'll see how it comes to life."

The Rams were clearly planning the offense around Akers' versatile and explosive talents -- until this week, when a torn Achilles knocked him out for the 2021 season, putting a real damper on those plans. Although the presence of a five-star QB like Stafford will enable L.A. to move up and down the field, the dearth of star power in the backfield -- remember, the Rams also said goodbye to Malcolm Brown this offseason -- could give this offense an unexpectedly Detroit-esque feel. The veteran quarterback will need to shoulder more of the offensive load, and there is a risk the tilt toward a pass-heavy approach could ultimately lead the Rams on a road to nowhere in the postseason.

Stafford has zero playoff victories on his résumé, and the lack of an effective running game throughout his tenure with the Lions played a major role in his inability to consistently succeed (only four winning seasons and a 74-90-1 mark in a 12-year career) in the Motor City.

Naturally, the Rams will explore their in-house options (Darrell Henderson, Xavier Jones, Jake Funk, Raymond Calais and Otis Anderson) to see if they can put together a combination that matches Akers' production, but defenses are unlikely to make radical tactical changes to counter a committee that does not include a premium-tier running back.

The Rams could also run it back with Gurley, who remains unsigned after a lackluster season with the Falcons, or sign another veteran on the market, such as LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Devonta Freeman or Le'Veon Bell. But it is unlikely that those players will be able to turn back the clock and regain their all-star prowess.

With few options available to create the kind of magic that was expected from Akers, the Rams -- who are entering this season with a "Super Bowl or bust" feel -- will need McVay to tap into his creative scheming to overcome the loss of an extremely valuable player. We will soon see if the young coach is up to the challenge.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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