When the Cowboys traded away Amari Cooper in the offseason, it was the team’s way of announcing that CeeDee Lamb would be their new number one receiver. The front office then doubled down on this notion by straight up confirming that they’d be building the offense around Lamb.
The idea itself wasn’t preposterous or unexpected. That’s the trajectory the Cowboys have been on since they drafted Lamb in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. And Lamb’s play since being drafted has always hinted at that kind of potential for him, too.
This week, though, the Cowboys will be playing the Minnesota Vikings. While Minnesota will certainly be game-planning for Lamb, the Dallas defense will have their hands full with Justin Jefferson. Drafted five spots after Lamb, Jefferson has made a rapid ascension to the upper echelon of receivers in the NFL. He’s currently among the top five of all receivers in targets, catches, yards, first downs, and yards after the catch. Jefferson has a legitimate argument as the top receiver in football.
Lamb has yet to reach that level. He just put up a great performance against the Packers, hauling in 11 of his 15 targets for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Statistically speaking, this was the best game of Lamb’s career. It also made him the first Cowboys receiver with 100 yards in a game all year. By comparison, Jefferson has done so in six of his nine games so far this year.
It’s entirely fair to compare Lamb and Jefferson, too. Both receivers were on the board for Dallas back in 2020, and the Cowboys chose Lamb. Of course, they’d have been ridiculed at the time for taking Jefferson over Lamb, but the Cowboys have faced similar criticism in the past when they drafted players like Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, and Micah Parsons. They’re no stranger to taking heat for drafting the guys they believed to be the best option - see: Tyler Smith just this year - so it’s clear that Dallas believed Lamb to be the better player.
So far, though, he hasn’t been. Lamb has undoubtedly been productive. He fell just shy of 1,000 receiving yards in a rookie year that saw him catching passes from four different quarterbacks. Last year, his first full season with Dak Prescott, Lamb totaled 1,102 receiving yards and six touchdowns. This year, he’s already on pace to set career highs with 1,333 yards and ten touchdowns.
There’s no question that Lamb has been good, but the question has to be if he’s good enough. All offseason, we were told that Lamb was going to be the focal point of this offense. He was going to be used like the Rams used Cooper Kupp last year, or like the Vikings were using Jefferson last year. That elevated the measuring stick for Lamb, and now his play has to be compared to those other players. That’s the expectation that was set by this team, and it’s the expectation Lamb has to live up to now.
Yet here we are, entering Week 11 of the season, and Lamb still isn’t on the same page as his quarterback. Against the Packers, Prescott threw an interception because Lamb failed to read the defense properly and adjust his route to what Prescott anticipated him to run. That’s the second time in as many games Lamb’s failure to run the right routes has led to an interception. He and Prescott had another near-pick on a similar issue against the Lions.
Simply put, Lamb cannot be making these mistakes in Year 3 after an offseason where he was branded as The Guy. Jefferson and Kupp don’t make those kinds of mistakes. And right now, Prescott is relying on Lamb to not make those mistakes either, which is why he throws these passes; he trusts Lamb, but how much longer can that trust remain when interceptions are being created from Lamb’s mental lapses?
The problem runs deeper than just the interceptions, too. FiveThirtyEight, in partnership with ESPN’s analytics department, uses player tracking data to provide next level metrics on receiver performance as the season goes on. Through this, they provide grades in three different categories - separation at the catch, ability to actually make the catch, and yards generated after the catch - that are then compiled into one composite score aimed at providing a complete overview of the best receivers in the NFL.
The top five according to this formula are, in descending order: A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Jefferson, and Tyler Lockett. Having Lockett at five might raise a few eyebrows, but overall nothing in those rankings seem outlandish. It passes the sniff test, to put it simply.
Where does Lamb rank, you might wonder? He’s all the way down at 23 on the list. Some of the players ahead of him are Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, Ravens tight end Mark Andrews, Commanders receiver Terry McLaurin, and, ironically, Browns receiver Amari Cooper.
Lamb’s categorical breakdowns aren’t great, either. He ranks 15th in separation at the catch, which is solid; however, Lamb is 36th in YAC and 70th (!) in ability to make the catch. In fact, Noah Brown is ranked ahead of Lamb in each of those last two categories. Keep in mind that all of these numbers are with Lamb’s career best performance in Green Bay this past week.
Lamb has easily been the best receiver on the Cowboys this season, though that isn’t exactly the highest bar to clear anymore. And he’s been productive too, well on pace to have the best year of his young career. But for a player who was supposed to take the leap into elite status, it simply hasn’t been enough from Lamb.