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Cowboys CeeDee Lamb needs to ramp up production to meet expectations

The young receiver needs to take a big step forward next year.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Remember how elated we all were when the Cowboys got on the clock in the 2020 NFL Draft and they actually selected CeeDee Lamb, who inexplicably fell to them at 17th overall? It was the moment that #Team40Burger officially grew wings and took flight after gestating most of that offseason. Lamb was supposed to become the next great receiving star in the NFL.

Lamb’s rookie year hit a few snags, though. He got off to a hot start, hauling in 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 tallied 45 catches on 71 targets for 502 yards and three touchdowns. During that time, he also had random bouts of the drops pop up for seemingly no reason, but still made plenty of highlight plays.

Expectations were sky high for Lamb’s sophomore season. He had a full offseason to prepare, would get to play with Prescott again, and frequently turned heads in training camp. The 2021 season felt like a guarantee for Lamb to cement himself as a premier receiver in the NFL, but it didn’t happen.

Lamb did finish the year with 79 catches on 120 targets for 1,102 yards and six touchdowns. That’s not bad, especially considering he missed a game with a concussion. But at no point did Lamb ever really look like The Guy™ or become a dominant go-to weapon for Prescott. In fact, he saw an increase in his targets per game during the Cowboys’ offensive slump, and it didn’t really help.

So it’s not fair to say Lamb has been a disappointment, but has he lived up to the gaudy expectations that were set the moment he was drafted? Not at all. This was made even more frustrating after watching the postseason. Against San Francisco, Lamb had just five targets and one catch; he also recorded one carry and one punt return. Three touches in a playoff game is far too few for a player like Lamb.

Then there were the other teams in the playoffs, who thrived because of their star receivers’ respective play. 49ers star Deebo Samuel was instrumental in that offense functioning at all, 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 tallied 478 yards and six touchdowns in his four playoff games this year. Kupp was also the target when the Rams absolutely needed a touchdown at the end of the Super Bowl, and he won the game’s MVP award for it.

Kupp, in particular, offers a glimpse into what Lamb could, and probably should, be. Lamb’s been at his best as a pro when he’s in the slot, and Kupp similarly plays in the slot whenever Los Angeles is in 11 personnel. With all due respect to Kupp, who just capped off a record-breaking season, Lamb is the more explosive and dynamic athlete. So why wasn’t Dallas able to have similar success when they tried to lean on Lamb during their slump?

Let’s revisit Lamb’s pre-draft profiles. Below are excerpts from scouting profiles written by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline, The Draft Network’s Drae Harris and Kyle Crabbs, and The Athletic’s Dane Brugler:

Lamb uses speed and separation quickness to dominate competition in a scheme that frequently created open throws in space. His routes will need to become more efficient and crisp to beat man-to-man coverage against NFL size and speed, but his ball skills and explosiveness with the ball in his hand should allow teams to scheme him into explosive opportunities right away.

Snatches the ball out of the air with his hands away from his frame and displays outstanding hand-eye coordination. Comes back into the clearing to make himself an available target. Keeps the play in bounds and shows the ability to pick up yardage after the catch. Plays with balance and body control.

This player displays good proactive athleticism with the ball in his hands. Displays good catch efficiency and rarely drops the football when he has attacked it with 2 hands. In the red zone and goal line situations, He shows good balance and body control to contort his body on back shoulder fades. Some coordinators may like him better as a big, physical slot WR and this is a role I believe he would excel at, as well.

He’s smooth with his feet, possesses elite body control, vacuum hands and is a dynamic, angry runner after the catch. Experienced in manufactured touches, boundary and slot work, Lamb should step into an offense and be comfortable filling any possible role than a coach could give him. A top-shelf WR prospect and impact starter early on.

Lamb has quick hands and feet to give defenders the slip before and after the catch, showcasing the football IQ and athleticism that allows him to find open space downfield. There is a backyard football element to his game and added refinement is needed, but his natural feel for creating after the catch is what he does best, showing multiple gears, vision and toughness to force missed tackles.

The common theme here is that Lamb is a smooth, fluid player with loads of potential to become a YAC demon. So far, that hasn’t really happened in Dallas. His 441 yards after the catch in 2021 were 18th in the NFL; his YAC per reception was tied with Cedrick Wilson for 14th among just receivers, and 56th among all skill players.

This wasn’t a result of the routes Lamb was running either. Lamb was 23rd in yards before catch, which indicates he wasn’t exclusively running deep routes. Of the 22 players with more yards before catch than Lamb, six of them had more yards after the catch than Lamb. And that includes Kupp, of course.

So what’s prevented Lamb from being right at the top of the league in YAC? Why couldn’t the offense pull itself from their midseason slump by just leaning on him? There are a wide variety of factors at play here - Kellen Moore’s game plans, Prescott’s performances, the inconsistency of the offensive line, etc. - but some of it comes back to Lamb too.

Perhaps a new, more experienced position coach can help with that. Maybe it goes deeper than that. Whatever the answer is, Lamb and the Cowboys need to find it if they want to truly capitalize on their young stud of a receiver. Because so far, Lamb has been good but not great, and they signed up for great when they took him 17th overall.