Remember how thrilled we all were when the Cowboys ticked the clock in the 2020 NFL Draft and actually selected CeeDee Lamb, who inexplicably dropped them to 17th overall? This is when #Team40Burger has officially sprouted wings and taken flight after having gestated most of this offseason. Lamb was expected to become the NFL’s next big receiving star.
Lamb’s rookie year had a few hiccups, however. He got off to a strong start, making 29 catches on 40 targets for 433 yards and two touchdowns before Dak Prescott went down for the year. Catching passes from three different quarterbacks over the next 11 games, Lamb had 45 catches on 71 targets for 502 yards and three touchdowns. During this time, it also popped up random episodes of drops for no apparent reason, but still made plenty of highlight games.
Expectations were very high for the second season of Lamb. He had a full offseason to prepare for, would play with Prescott again, and often turned heads in training camp. The 2021 season seemed like a guarantee for Lamb to cement himself as the NFL’s premier receiver, but that hasn’t happened.
Lamb finished the year with 79 catches on 120 targets for 1,102 yards and six touchdowns. Not bad, especially considering he missed a game with a concussion. But at no time did Lamb truly look like The Guy™ or become a dominant weapon for Prescott. In fact, he saw an increase in his goals per game during the Cowboys’ offensive slump, and that didn’t really help.
So it’s not fair to say that Lamb was a disappointment, but did he live up to the garish expectations that were set when he was drafted? Not at all. It was made even more frustrating after watching the playoffs. Against San Francisco, Lamb had only five targets and one strike; he also recorded a carry and a punt return. Three touches in a playoff game is far too few for a player like Lamb.
Then there were the other playoff teams, which thrived on the respective play of their star receivers. 49ers star Deebo Samuel was instrumental in making that offense work, while Bengals rookie Ja’Marr Chase powered an explosive Bengals offense all the way to the Super Bowl. And, of course, there’s Rams star Cooper Kupp, who had 478 yards and six touchdowns in his four playoff games this year. Kupp was also the target when the Rams badly needed a touchdown late in the Super Bowl, and he won the game’s MVP award for it.
Kupp, in particular, offers insight into what Lamb could and probably should be. Lamb has been at his best as a pro when he’s in the slot, and Kupp plays the same in the slot whenever Los Angeles has 11. With all due respect to Kupp, who just completed a record season, Lamb is the most explosive and dynamic athlete. So why wasn’t Dallas able to have similar success when they tried to lean on Lamb during their crisis?
Let’s review Lamb’s pre-draft profiles. Below are excerpts from scouting profiles written by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network, Drae Harris and Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network and Dane Brugler of The Athletic:
Lamb uses speed and separation quickness to dominate the competition in a pattern that frequently creates open throws in space. His routes will need to become more efficient and crisp to beat man-to-man coverage against the size and speed of the NFL, but his ball skills and explosiveness with the ball in his hand should allow teams to plan him immediately in explosive opportunities.
Catches the ball in the air with his hands away from his frame and displays excellent hand-eye coordination. Returns to the clearing to become an available target. Keeps game within limits and shows ability to pick up footage after capture. Play with balance and body control.
This player shows good proactive athleticism with the ball in his hands. Displays good catching efficiency and rarely drops the ball when attacked with 2 hands. In red zone and goal line situations, he shows good balance and body control to contort his body on back shoulder fades. Some coordinators might appreciate him best as a big, under-physical WR and that’s a role I think he would excel in as well.
He’s soft on his feet, has elite body control, sucks hands, and is a dynamic runner and angry after catch. Experienced in manufactured touches, boundaries and slot work, Lamb should step into an offense and be comfortable filling any possible role a coach might throw at him. A high-end WR prospect and impact starter from the start.
Lamb has quick hands and feet to slide defenders before and after the catch, showcasing the football IQ and athleticism that allows him to find free space on the pitch. There is a backyard football element to his game and further refinement is needed, but his natural feel for creating after the catch is what he does best, showing multiple speeds, vision and tenacity to force the missed tackles.
The common theme here is that Lamb is a smooth, fluid player with plenty of potential to become a YAC demon. So far, that hasn’t really happened in Dallas. His 441 yards after catch in 2021 was 18th in the NFL; his YAC per reception was tied with Cedrick Wilson for 14th among receivers only and 56th among all talent players.
Nor was it the result of the roads Lamb was following. Lamb was 23rd in yards before the catch, indicating he wasn’t exclusively running deep lanes. Of the 22 players with more yards before the catch than Lamb, six of them had more yards after the catch than Lamb. And that includes Kupp, of course.
So what kept Lamb from being top of the league at YAC? Why couldn’t the attack get out of their mid-season slump by simply relying on him? There’s a wide variety of factors at play here – Kellen Moore’s game plans, Prescott’s performance, offensive line inconsistency, and so on. – but some of them also go back to Lamb.
Maybe a new, more experienced stance trainer can help. Maybe it goes further than that. Whatever the answer, Lamb and the Cowboys need to find it if they are serious about capitalizing on their young catcher stallion. Because so far Lamb has been good but not great, and they signed up for the best when they took him 17th overall.