5 receptions. 71 yards. 1 touchdown.
Those aren't the kinds of statistics that would normally grab attention and make headlines for a wide receiver. In the box score from Sunday night's matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts, however, those are the numbers listed for the Cowboys' WR1. Even still, fans, pundits, and analysts can't seem to stop talking about the performance of CeeDee Lamb.
Reaching New Levels
CeeDee Lamb has been progressing noticeably week over week, but something happened when he scored the Cowboys' first touchdown of the game Sunday night. The Colts had already taken the lead with a field goal, and the Cowboys had yet to score. On 3rd & 9, Lamb caught a pass from Dak Prescott and got wrapped up by a defender well short of the line of gain. They both fell toward the ground. Then, in a stunning display of awareness and dexterity, Lamb hopped up and ran into the end zone. Knowing that he was not actually down by rule, he completed the play, gave the Cowboys the lead, and initiated a shift in mood and momentum that would ultimately lead to a historical win by the Dallas Cowboys.
It was at that moment that the conversation surrounding CeeDee Lamb seemed to change from him “becoming” a No. 1 wide receiver to him being respected and recognized, without contest, as the WR1 of America's Team. After that point in the game, the announcers poured on compliments recognizing how Lamb's motion was essential to the success of the offense. Analysts were tweeting about how great he looked as a receiver and a run blocker. Fans were loving his toughness and physicality.
It was as if, like a Pokémon character, he had been leveling up throughout the season, gaining XP every time Dak Prescott threw the ball and shouted (metaphorically of course), “CeeDee Lamb, I choose you!” Then, with that touchdown, he reached a new level and evolved before our very eyes.
In the past, most negative criticism of CeeDee Lamb's play fell into a few different categories:
- Lack of physicality/ Struggles with playing through coverage
- Too many dropped passes
- Poor route running/ Inability to get open
- Overall lack of consistency
Nothing in a typical box score points directly to any of those areas, but those are the areas in which CeeDee Lamb has shown the most improvement over the past several weeks. Even though parts of Lamb's metamorphosis can only be observed via the eyeball test, luckily, Pro Football Focus goes beyond the basics when it comes to stats and has quantified a few things that might normally be overlooked.
What the Numbers Do Show
The most noticeable improvement, according to PFF is Lamb's overall offensive grade as a receiver. Lamb started the season with a grade of 51.2 out of 100 after Week 1. In the following weeks, his grade stayed mostly in the 70s, but his current grade for the season is 86.6, giving him the 6th best receiver grade on PFF's list of NFL wide receivers.
One thing that has raised his overall grade is the improvement he's made in the area of dropped passes. CeeDee's last recorded dropped pass occurred in Week 10. That was the only dropped pass he's had over the last 9 games. As of right now, his dropped pass percentage for the season so far is 5.5%. By the end of Week 13 in 2021, however, his dropped pass percentage was 18.8%. Based on the PFF calculations for this season alone, after Week 6, CeeDee's dropped pass rate was 8.3%. For Weeks 7-13, there's a drastic decrease to 2.7%.
The ways CeeDee Lamb has developed as a route runner and pass blocker are a bit more difficult to quantify. Any onlooker who hasn't personally observed those advancements might only realize it through commentary and anecdotal support. Lamb's route running was criticized through much of last season as being less-than-excellent. Some cited it as the reason he was more suited as a No. 2 receiver behind Amari Cooper than as No. 1 himself. During the earlier weeks of this season, route running was still used as a point of comparison between between Lamb and Cooper even though Amari Cooper had been traded to a different team.
It wasn't until Week 13, when the Cowboys visited the Green Bay Packers, that CeeDee began to earn compliments for his routes. Game announcer Kirk Herbstreit described one route as “beautiful,” and the most active voices on Cowboys Twitter complimented the receiver throughout that game as well.
Lack of Toughness
Some of the most negative criticism of CeeDee Lamb goes all the way back to last season when he was maligned for a general lack of observable grit. Lamb had some great moments in 2021, of course. There were game saving and game winning catches. He ended the season with 1,102 total receiving yards, 13.9 yards per reception, and 6 total touchdowns. He performed well enough for the powers that be to feel comfortable letting go of Amari Cooper and naming him WR1.
However, there were disappointing moments that occurred a bit too often for the liking of many. His blocking ability was often criticized. Some said he was not tough enough to block. Others questioned whether his ineffectual blocking was a result of a lack of interest or desire to play that role. He was also criticized both last season and earlier this season for having trouble playing through coverage. A few passes were dropped when a defender made contact after the catch. He also seemed to struggle when it came to securing contested catches.
Imposing His Will
With what we've seen from CeeDee Lamb over the past several weeks, however, last season's issues are of no import at this point. Anyone paying attention to CeeDee Lamb has seen flickers of potential for a tougher version of the receiver throughout this season. Those flickers eventually became flashes and then full on displays of ferocity. What we're seeing now is an undaunted WR1 who is hauling in contested catches, powering through contact, making defenders miss, and effectively blocking for other teammates.
CeeDee Lamb's increased physicality can't be accounted for statistically, but it is reflected through changes in certain stats. Over the past several weeks, we've seen a reduction in dropped passes, an increase in his contested catch rate, some of his highest yards-after-catch totals, and even a slight uptick in yards per route run. All of that is due to CeeDee Lamb showing the type of assertion, and sometimes aggression, that makes defenders question their life choices when they try to oppose his will on the field. This is what Cowboys fans have been wanting to see from their WR1.
On Sunday, CeeDee told reporters, “I've always seen myself as THE guy,” suggesting that this stage in his development may just be the beginning. He's always envisioned these kinds of performances and is surely aiming for even more. Some are saying that he's finally arrived, but CeeDee definitely has much more in store. This is just one exciting part of the journey.