The 2020 Dallas Cowboys season was nearly unbearable to watch. The one bright spot was rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, whose brightest moment came on second and goal at the Minnesota Vikings’ 4-yard line in the second quarter, with five minutes left.
The Cowboys were trailing by one point on the road, with Andy Dalton under center six weeks after Dallas had lost Dak Prescott to a season-ending ankle injury. The former Oklahoma Sooner was running a fade, but as Lamb broke outside, Dalton put the ball inward and high above his receiver’s head. A normal receiver wouldn’t—couldn’t—make a break on that ball.
But Lamb is no normal receiver. He cut back, then twisted his body as momentum took him to the ground. Then, the coup de grace: as Lamb fell to the turf back-first, he stretched out his arms and brought in the ball. Touchdown. Dallas took the lead in a game they would eventually win, a rare highlight in a 6-10 season. The victory was ultimately meaningless. Lamb’s acrobatic catch was not.
That moment in US Bank Stadium seemingly confirmed what the Cowboys and their fans alike hoped would be true: CeeDee Lamb was the future at wide receiver. In his first season, Lamb put up 935 yards on 74 catches with five touchdowns despite a rotating stable of quarterbacks attempting to fill Prescott’s shoes. With Prescott back in 2021, it was only logical to presume that another offseason of training and a full season with QB1 would spell even more success. Instead, Lamb’s performance in 2021 left a lot to be desired relative to expectations. But was his sophomore season better than it seemed? And, more important, will the departure of Amari Cooper plus another year of development lead to Lamb’s emergence as a true wide receiver one?
“Success” is moving target. If we define it by year-over-year improvement, then, yes, Lamb’s 2021 season was largely disappointing. Granted, he increased his receptions by six, his yards by 188, and touchdowns by one while dropping one fewer pass. It was not disastrous by any means. But this production didn’t live up to what most hoped for. Most NFL receivers take a sizable step forward in their second year, and Lamb’s improvement did not reach the bar of a “breakout” season. That’s especially true considering he spent 11 and half games of his rookie year catching passes from Dalton, Garrett Gilbert, and Ben DiNucci compared to playing that full season with Prescott (plus an extra game due to the NFL’s schedule expansion).
But maybe we’re looking at this through the wrong lens. Instead of examining his success on a year-over-year basis, let’s consider how Lamb stacked up against the rest of the NFL using efficiency metrics instead of volume stats (since those favor teams with one dominant pass catcher, which was definitely not the case in Dallas). Among receivers who saw more than 50 targets in 2021, Lamb finished with the 10th-best PFF grade. He finished fifth by missed tackles forced, ninth by contested catch rate, 16th by yards after catch per reception, 20th by yards per route run, and 23rd by yards per reception.
While Lamb only finished top 10 by two of the metrics listed above, Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, and Ja’Marr Chase were the only receivers who consistently dominated these metrics. In comparison, out of the five efficiency statistics listed above, Lamb was a better receiver than Justin Jefferson in three categories. He also had a lower drop rate than Samuel, Chase, and A.J. Brown.
This isn’t an attempt to paint a rosy picture of an inconsistent season. His eight drops, a 9.1 percent drop percentage, and six interceptions when targeted all fell in the bottom-15 qualifying receivers. And for a supposed top-10 wide receiver, he disappeared far too often. PFF gave Lamb a “backup quality” grade in more than half of the games he played.
Still, Lamb’s flashes of brilliance in matchups with the Buccaneers, Chargers, Vikings, Falcons, and, most notably, the Patriots, were enough to offset these down weeks. As long as this inconsistency problem isn’t directly related to Kellen Moore’s play calling, week-in, week-out reliability often comes with experience. This is also assuming that Lamb improves in the dropped-ball department, which seemed to rear its head at the most inopportune times for the Cowboys. There’s good news there, too: that consistency in production and dropping fewer passes are entirely fixable.
The bad news is that, historically, time is running out. Lamb turned 23 two months ago. Over the last 10 years, the average wide receiver played his third NFL season at 24 and a half years old. Not only is Lamb a young player, but he is younger than most other receivers who have two years of experience. This means that he should naturally take a step forward, right? Not necessarily. The NFL is drastically different than it was two decades ago, when it took players such as Terrell Owens three years just to break 1,000 yards. Today’s wideouts come into the league more developed and thus hit their ceiling faster.
There are 122 wide receivers who have played at least three NFL seasons and saw more than 50 targets in their second year. Of those 122 players, 64 failed to increase their yards-per-game number in season three. Nearly 70 failed to record more receptions in their third season, likely because the average targets among this group fell by 2.4 after their sophomore year in the league. By approximate value, a statistic measured similar to wins above replacement in football, the average receiver declined by 6 percent, with 74 failing to exceed their year two total. There is only one metric that seems to increase from year two to year three: catch percentage. If there is hope for Lamb’s development, it would be that he consistently holds onto the ball when targeted.
Every player is different, of course, and Lamb has two factors working in his favor that break from the norm: he is younger than most receivers entering his third season, and he already outproduced the average second-year receiver. While both points are worth noting, the results largely remain unchanged. Among the 21 WRs who entered year three younger than 24 years old, the average yards-per-game increase was 2.3 yards. To put that into perspective, that would equate to Lamb jumping from 1,123 last season up to 1,164 yards in 2022. This same group saw their yards per target, total targets, receptions, touchdowns, and approximate value all decrease on average.
So even the young receivers sometimes fail to elevate their production in year three. And the same can be said for receivers who broke out at a young age. Since 2011, 53 players saw more than 100 targets in year two. Their average production in year three includes a 5.2-yard decrease in yards per game, their total receiving yards declined by 157, their catch percentage dropped by 1.2 percent, and their approximate value decreased by 17 percent.
All of which is to say, there is no evidence telling us to presume Lamb’s numbers will make huge progress in his third season.
But don’t get it twisted. It’s certainly possible that Lamb improves, too. Players such as Demaryius Thomas, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones, Keenan Allen, and Devante Adams all took a sizable step forward in year three. Lamb is now the No. 1 pass catcher on the team, which should come with an increase in opportunities now that there’s a conspicuous Amari Cooper-shaped hole atop the depth chart. And Lamb’s efficiency with the targets he did receive last year proves he can develop into a top-10 wide receiver. Ratchet up his workload, and his production could explode.
Ultimately, neither progression nor regression is a given. A pathway exists for Lamb to become Dallas’ next superstar wideout. Or he could go the way of Sammy Watkins, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and John Brown and plummet from “promising” to “tantalizing.”
History suggests the latter is more common, but the offseason is the time for optimism. And, after all, the last Dallas receiver to wear No. 88 after being drafted in the first round didn’t come onto the scene until this time in his career, too: Dez Bryant put up 1,382 yards with 12 touchdowns in his third season. There might just be magic in the No. 88, the sort that transcends pure data. Maybe the receiver who twisted his entire torso to make that highlight-reel catch against the Vikings is just the next in line.