FRISCO, Texas — Amari Cooper was traded to the Cleveland Browns. Michael Gallup is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and will not be back until mid to late September.
What seemed destined to happen after the Dallas Cowboys selected CeeDee Lamb in the first round in 2020 and gave him the hallowed No. 88 jersey is now a reality: Lamb is the Cowboys’ clear-cut top wide receiver.
“I feel like that’s just part of me, just being that guy and kinda being accountable for everything,” Lamb said after the first organized team activity last week. “If I don’t get going, nothing gets going, honestly. That’s how I approach the game. Just having this pressure, if you will, on my back, it’s whatever.”
Lamb might not feel the pressure in May, but come September when the games are real, things will be different.
“I think CeeDee is in a situation where all of a sudden, he’s going to have a lot more attention on him and how he deals with that will tell the tale,” Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown told ESPN. “There’s going to be a guy over you and a safety creeping over and that means you got to go to work. You’ve got to learn how to do that, learn how to beat double coverage and then sometimes triple coverage. I think that’s going to be a big adjustment for him.”
It’s not that Lamb hasn’t seen extra attention his first two years, but there was always the comfort that most of the time he was playing with fellow receivers Cooper (68 catches for 865 yards in 2021), Cedrick Wilson (45 catches, 602 yards) and Gallup (35 catches, 445 yards), who would draw attention themselves.
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At the start of this season, the Cowboys could have James Washington, who had 24 receptions a year ago for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and third-round pick Jalen Tolbert as their Nos. 2 and 3 receivers while Gallup recovers. Wilson signed with the Miami Dolphins in March.
Last season, Lamb led the Cowboys with 79 receptions for 1,102 yards and eight touchdowns and was added to the Pro Bowl. In his first two seasons, he had 2,037 yards, which is topped in team history only by Hall of Famer Bob Hayes (2,235 yards in 1965-66).
Lamb’s rise to the No. 1 is reminiscent of Dez Bryant, who wore No. 88 before Lamb. The Cowboys never thought Bryant would be available where they picked in the 2010 draft, but moved up from No. 27 to No. 24 to get him; just as they never thought Lamb would be available to them in 2020. As a rookie, Bryant had Miles Austin as the No. 1 receiver and moved up in the rotation until becoming the bona fide No. 1 in his third season.
From 2012-14, Bryant averaged 91 catches for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns with Tony Romo as his quarterback.
“This is a great opportunity for him personally,” coach Mike McCarthy said of Lamb. “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 (Cooper’s position).
“We understand his rise in Year 3 that he’s going to get a lot more attention from the defense. But he’s doing all of the little things that are needed to get him ready to be the No. 1 guy.”
There is also tangible change, and that is where Lamb’s locker is located. Quarterback Dak Prescott moved Lamb right next to him, a spot Cooper used to hold.
“My two other locker mates left so I was a little lonely and I decided, you know, he’s the guy,” Prescott said. “So just me knowing that hopefully he’s my receiver until I’m done playing, just bring him closer, more conversation since he’s right there, accessible to talk, just communicate.”
It took Brown time to develop into the Raiders’ No. 1, although some of that was because of a left knee injury his second season and Al Davis’ desire to keep him as an elite punt returner and third-down receiver. In 1993, Mervyn Fernandez got hurt, and that started Brown’s run of nine straight 1,000-yard seasons.
Brown’s job was a little more difficult because he said he had 20 different quarterbacks with the Raiders, although the Cowboys had four different starting quarterbacks in Lamb’s rookie season.
“I did a lot of talking to those guys, especially the young guys, trying to let them know to trust me and once they complete it, then they’re good and they can always go back to that,” Brown said. “But you have to be on the same page with your quarterback because that could be a pick-six real easy if you’re not.”
There has been a natural connection between Prescott and Lamb almost from the beginning. His two 100-yard games as a rookie came with Prescott as the quarterback for seven of the eight quarters in those games. They had two more 100-yard games last year, including Lamb’s breakout nine-catch, 149-yard, two-touchdown effort, including the overtime winner, against the New England Patriots.
Not only are their lockers next to each other, they sit in the same row during offensive meetings.
They know the details matter.
“We’re continuing to work on them and it’s a process,” Prescott said. “He mentioned that because that’s something this whole offense has hung our hat on is getting better in the details because those are the things that show up late in the year.”
Because of his success at Oklahoma, his draft status and his No. 88, Lamb has never gone unrecognized, but in 2022 he knows the Cowboys will need more.
“Most importantly, just stepping up regardless of any situation, first down, second down, just always being that guy that everyone can count on,” Lamb said. “And by everyone, I mean everyone in this locker room. I want to be accountable. I want to be that guy.”