Dallas Cowboys fans are looking for reasons to be optimistic about the team’s offseason since the playoff loss to the 49ers, hoping that Wild Card loss wasn’t the peak for this current iteration of the team. One of the first moves for the Cowboys in reshaping this roster was the trade of Amari Cooper, which elevated CeeDee Lamb to the alpha receiver role.
The Cowboys made a familiar move by re-signing a receiver they got at better value in Michael Gallup, though he won’t be counted on for a full 17 games this season. This increases the pressure on Lamb to start the season, who was also involved in a move when Dak Prescott asked that Lamb’s locker be moved next to his.
Dak Prescott asked for CeeDee Lamb’s locker to be moved next to his: “My 2 other locker mates left, so I was a little lonely. With him being young, hopefully he’s my WR until I’m done playing. Just bring him closer, more conversations, he’s right there to talk and communicate.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 25, 2022
Another possible move for Lamb in hopes of keeping the Cowboys offense near the top of the league was signaled by Mike McCarthy’s comments about him playing the “flanker” position that Cooper was in last year.
“This is a great opportunity for him personally,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think just the way we’ve established the offense, particularly in the passing game, the ability for those guys to play different positions, to create matchups and make it harder on the defense to double you and those type of things — my point is, playing in the slot a lot last year and now playing the flanker position (where Cooper played).
“Flanker” is a term commonly used in the West Coast offense, which McCarthy ran as head coach with the Green Bay Packers. McCarthy faces even more pressure this season to see his team progress in Kellen Moore’s offense.
Lamb as a flanker receiver means plenty of reps on the single side of the field. Going across the middle and setting up opportunities for yards after the catch are crucial at this position, and are strengths of Lamb’s game already. In the bigger picture of these West Coast offenses, one receiver can own a major share of the receptions, yards, and touchdowns, while the offense as a whole is still productive.
A look around the Cowboys depth chart beyond Lamb would highlight the need for him to be this type of dominant receiver, but McCarthy’s history suggests the Cowboys will still need a high end second or third receiver to emerge. With Gallup still injured, James Washington starting OTAs in a walking boot, and Jalen Tolbert being a third-round rookie, they’re a long way from determining who can fill these roles. Instead of being encouraged by the seasons where McCarthy’s offense was carried by one player, the data from 2006-18 paints a grayer picture.
For the first four years of McCarthy’s tenure as head coach, the Packers top receivers were Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. The year these two receivers saw the biggest gap in receptions and yards was 2006, McCarthy’s first season, and it produced their worst ranking in points scored as the Packers finished 26th. When Driver and Jennings were separated by just two catches and 52 yards in 2009, the Packers were seventh in points scored, their second best output under McCarthy.
The 2010 season was a career changer for McCarthy, as he won the Super Bowl in AT&T Stadium as the Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. This was his third season working with James Jones, just as this season will be his third with Lamb. Jones made the year three jump to surpass Driver in production, coming within 26 catches and 586 yards of Jennings.
The Packers were well on pace to defend this championship with the number one offense in 2011, with Jordy Nelson making a year four jump. Nelson and Jennings caught 68 and 67 passes respectively, and the Packers finished 15-1.
The 2014 Packers team that ended the Cowboys season in the Divisional Round also finished first in points, when Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb put up remarkably similar stat lines in catches, yards, and touchdowns. McCarthy has benefited from coaching quarterbacks that like to spread the ball around, much like Dak Prescott, but is severely lacking proven receivers for Dak to target right now.
When Green Bay moved on from McCarthy in 2018, Davante Adams was carrying their entire receiving corps. The next closest pass catcher was actually tight end Jimmy Graham, who finished 56 catches and 750 yards shy of Adams. If McCarthy finished the year, this would have been the biggest gap from his top two skill players since he started in 2006.
The Cowboys have wanted to play an imposing style of offense for a while, one where opposing defenses know what’s coming but still can’t stop it. Under Jason Garrett, they established this on the ground with a dominant offensive line and running game. Establishing the run will still be a big part of the Cowboys offense with Ezekiel Elliott on the field, but the idea they can force feed CeeDee Lamb and sustain success is unproven.
Wide receiver isn’t the only position the Cowboys are counting on unproven depth to step up this season, but it could be the most glaring when the season begins. When the offense became inefficient last season, at least the Cowboys had their early success to fall back on as a reason it was fixable. With a first round playoff exit, that fix is still ongoing this offseason, where a slow start would quickly draw restlessness between fans and McCarthy, Moore, and the front office that traded away Amari Cooper.