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CeeDee Lamb Might Be the Best Receiver in Football Right Now

His emergence from good to great has given the Cowboys their best shot at contention in a decade.
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CeeDee Lamb now ranks among the most dominant receivers in the NFL. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I have to give the Cowboys this: they’re very good at consistently convincing me they are true contenders after I’ve sworn off ever going down this path again. After last year’s playoff exit, I thought this iteration of the team was done. At the time, of course, the belief was that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn would move on to a head coaching gig, so I suppose that gives me a little wiggle room on that proclamation. But really, it just felt as if Dak Prescott was exiting his prime, the offensive line was injured and aging, and the team didn’t have a skill position game-changer the likes of which the league’s top-shelf teams all possessed. 

Fast-forward 11 months, and all of that sounds silly. Prescott is playing as well as anyone who has played for this franchise, Tyron and Tyler Smith are performing as well as any guard/tackle combo in football, and, finally, CeeDee Lamb has ascended to another level that even his most ardent supporters couldn’t have seen coming.

Since the bye week six games ago, here are the receiving categories Lamb leads the league in: all of them.

He has the most targets, the most catches, the most yards, the most touchdowns, and the most first downs. Last year he became a No. 1 option; this year he has become a first-team All-Pro.

In those six games, almost 30 percent of Lamb’s targeted routes have been straight “go” routes. That’s up from 16 percent last season and 22 percent over the first six games of the year. I wrote about some of the ways the Cowboys modified their offense after the bye week—more motion and varied formations—but perhaps the biggest alteration has been Prescott pushing the ball down the field more frequently. And that begins with Lamb. It sounds simplistic, but one of the decisions Prescott and coach Mike McCarthy settled on was, “Yeah, we have a guy they can’t cover. Run straight down the field, and we’re going to throw it to you.”

Lamb lined up in the slot on more than 90 percent of his snaps as a rookie in 2020, but in his sophomore season, he was out wide more than 60 percent of the time. Last season, as his breakout began, the Cowboys settled on a split that is closer to 50/50, and that has continued this year. He has developed into an invaluable chess piece. 

In many ways, I think of Lamb as the embodiment of the modern wide receiver. Is he a “possession” receiver? Not really, but he is fully capable of making tough catches and taking big hits, as evidenced by some of the shots he took last Thursday night while catching a dozen passes against Seattle. Is he a “speedy slot” type who catches screens and hitches (16 of 17 on those routes over the last six games) and forces the defense to make a tough tackle in space? Yes, but he isn’t small. And he runs bigger than he is. 

Ten years ago, teams wanted at least one “X” receiver—a pass catcher 6-foot-2 or bigger (Dez Bryant)—and at least one shifty slot player (Cole Beasley). Over time, those roles and body types have essentially merged into a collection of players capable of doing it all. And no one is doing it better than Lamb.

Impressively, Lamb has also remained healthy, despite the sort of hits he takes. He has appeared in all but one game since entering the NFL. Obviously, luck is a huge factor in his availability, but he deserves a lot of credit on that front. 

The most encouraging element of Lamb breaking out in this way is that it gives the Cowboys multiple ways to win games. We all know that, in most games, the pass rush is going to be a nightmare for the offense, resulting in a good chance at forcing turnovers. But it is virtually impossible in the modern NFL to win at the highest levels without an elite offense, and particularly an elite passing offense. For the season, the Cowboys have the third-best EPA per dropback in the NFL; since their bye week, they’re first.

They’re about to run into a slate of four straight games against teams that all rank in the top eight of that metric. Dallas doesn’t need to put up 40 against these teams like it has against inferior competition, but for the Cowboys to be considered among the best of the best, the Prescott-to-Lamb connection will have to continue to function at a high level.

As long as Prescott, Lamb, and Micah Parsons are on this team, they’re going to have a chance against anyone. But it is worth noting that all three of those players are about to cost a lot more. Dallas has already paid cornerback Trevon Diggs, and it’s virtually impossible to imagine any of the other three stars not continuing their careers in Dallas. Lamb most likely will command in the neighborhood of $25 million a year, Parsons might become the highest-paid defensive player in the history of the game, and Prescott just saw Jalen Hurts get north of $50 million per season. These are good problems to have, but it is worth noting that the club is collectively paying these three players the lowest amount they will at any point in their careers. That’s why this is such a pivotal season, an opportunity to strike. 

I hate that I have bought back in, but I must say, I have. The Cowboys have not had a quarterback/receiver tandem playing playing like this since Tony Romo and Terrell Owens, and while that team had a good defense, it was nowhere near as strong or as opportunistic of this one. Wade Phillips was a fine head coach, but McCarthy is better. Prescott is getting MVP talk, and rightfully so. But the most impactful development of this season has been CeeDee Lamb claiming a spot among the NFL’s best at his position. Lamb’s emergence from good to great has revitalized Prescott, and Dallas has its best chance to truly contend in several years.

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Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…

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