OXNARD, Calif. — CeeDee Lamb’s importance to the Dallas Cowboys in 2022 was never more apparent than after the third practice of training camp. It was not what he did on the field. It’s what he did not do.
Lamb did not take any snaps in team drills. He is only 24. He is entering just his third season. He does not have a history of injuries.
“I was confused,” Lamb said. “They told me I was done with practice. I mean, I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I’m not used to that.”
Personal history tells coach Mike McCarthy that players are subject to soft-tissue injuries at a higher percentage in the third or fourth practice of camp.
“It was just a rep count, being conscious,” McCarthy said. “There was nothing there physically. Trusting the numbers, GPS from the past. That was by design.”
The Cowboys opted to move on from Amari Cooper in March with a trade to the Cleveland Browns in part because of his $20 million salary and in part because they believe Lamb is ready to be the No. 1 wide receiver, fulfilling the legacy of the No. 88 jersey they gave him after he was selected in the first round in 2020.
On Monday, Lamb’s importance to the Cowboys’ offense became even greater when James Washington suffered a fractured right foot that will keep him out for six to 10 weeks, according to multiple sources. In addition, the Cowboys’ No. 2 receiver, Michael Gallup is continuing a recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered in January and will miss at least the season opener.
The only other healthy receiver to catch a pass from quarterback Dak Prescott in a regular-season game is Noah Brown.
The move to the No. 1 role does not faze Lamb, who has 153 receptions for 2,037 yards and 11 touchdowns and a Pro Bowl appearance in his first two seasons.
But it’s the work that Lamb, Prescott, the coaches and front office believe will catapult him into the top-tiers of NFL wide receivers.
After a day of red zone work, Lamb spent extra time with Prescott working on timing routes near the end zone, perfecting the steps and ball placement they hope will become second nature when the season starts in September.
“We kinda been doing that all through this whole offseason, just being together,” Lamb said. “Things are a lot different when you have a body in front of you rather than on air. So just got to piece a couple little nuances here and there and then just go make it happen in the game.”
For a few days in early July, Prescott had Lamb, Jalen Tolbert and tight ends Dalton Schultz and Sean McKeon in Miami for workouts at the University of Miami’s facility. It’s a trip Prescott has done in the past with his pass-catchers, but it was the first time Lamb was involved in one.
COVID-19 prevented a road trip in Lamb’s rookie year, although they got together at Prescott’s home for work on the quarterback’s backyard field. In 2021, Prescott was still rehabbing from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle.
Lamb called the time in Miami “phenomenal.”
“Just having that kind of experience with your quarterback it just builds character and it builds stacking better days from training camp,” Lamb said.
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Lamb has had his normal eye-catching plays, like a one-handed reception of a pass near the sideline. On Monday, he and Prescott connected on five of the six pass attempts to the receiver. Three were in traffic with defenders on all sides of Lamb. All three went for what would have been a first down.
Prescott said Lamb has made strides “everywhere.”
“He’s just a guy that loves to work — whether it be in the film room, whether it be out here on the field at practice just in drills or in individual on his own,” Prescott said. “He’s going to continue to get better and his mentality is something all receivers can follow.”
McCarthy has been part of this wide receiver progression before. In his near decade-plus run with the Green Bay Packers, he saw Donald Driver hand the No. 1 receiver role to Greg Jennings, who handed it to Jordy Nelson who handed it to Davante Adams, like Lamb has done with the Cowboys.
“The light is brighter as far as internally, as far as responsibility and opportunities he is given, but also the way defenses will react to him,” McCarthy said. “When you look at CeeDee and those receivers in Green Bay it is very similar to how we do it here in Dallas. The ability for receivers to play inside and outside, to me, is at a premium. When you only play one or the other you are making it a lot easier for the defense to take it away.
“CeeDee’s experience of playing so much in the slot last year is only going to help him now that he is at flanker. … We have to move him around to create more opportunities for him.”
Unlike the Packers receivers, Lamb will not have proven players around him to help divert some of the attention. At least not until Gallup returns or if the Cowboys add a high-profile receiver through free agency or a trade. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he sees no urgency to add a veteran receiver because of Washington’s injury. The loss of Washington is significant because of how the Cowboys are constructed at receiver, but he had just 24 catches last year for the Pittsburgh Steelers and never topped 44 in a season.
“I feel like I’m going to affect the game regardless,” Lamb said of where he lines up on the field. “And with that being said, me being No. 1, the attention is going to be on me and I’m kind of prepared for it. It doesn’t change anything really for my game. Just going to go make a play.”
Since he was with Lamb at Oklahoma, defensive tackle Neville Gallimore knows him better than most on the Cowboys’ roster. They had lockers next to each other and would often talk about their NFL dreams.
“I know if you put him in a situation, if you throw him in the fire, he always comes out on top,” Gallimore said. “So I know he’s more than ready for this opportunity and I’m not going to speak on it too much but I’m excited. Not because he’s my teammate, but he’s a good guy. But, man, that guy is going to go and get it. He’s got a lot to bring to the table and he’s still not even scratching the surface. You best believe you can expect something special from him this season. No doubt.”
Prescott has no doubt. As Lamb addressed reporters for the first time in camp, the quarterback walked behind the scrum with a message:
“CeeDee is that dude.”
If not Lamb, then who?