CeeDee Lamb wasn't only one of the busiest members of the Cowboys' offense last year but also handled the majority of their punt returns. Will the second-year receiver continue as a primary return man in 2021, or will Dallas look to other options to help protect their young star?
Lamb handled 24 of the 29 total punt returns for the Cowboys in 2020, with the other five going to Cedrick Wilson. He only had one kickoff return and it was a big one; taking a 49ers' onside kick attempt to the endzone in Week 15.
CeeDee's punt returns last year were nothing special. His 7.2 average was only 11th best in the NFL and his longest was only 27 yards. While Lamb occasionally flashed his dangerous potential once he was on the move, the final results never amounted to much.
We usually think of return men as specialists who occupy lower points on the depth charts. This is usually who we've seen handling these duties in Dallas; guys like Cedrick Wilson, Dwayne Harris, and Lucky Whitehead. But it wasn't long ago that another star receiver routinely handled punt returns, and it was actually the last guy to wear that #88 jersey.
CeeDee Lamb getting in some punt return work after practice pic.twitter.com/V2PQyarGSh
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) July 24, 2021
Dez Bryant was one of the Cowboys' go-to punt returners his first three years in the NFL. Though they use him judiciously at times, Bryant still had 12-15 punt returns each year from 2010-2012.
Like Lamb, Dez was a constant threat with the ball in his hands. He showed that as a rookie with two touchdowns on just 15 returns and a 14.3 average. Opponents adjusted and never allowed Bryant to have that same kind of production in future years.
Once he was fully established as the Cowboys' franchise receiver and starting to deal with some injuries, Bryant graduated from special teams duties and never took another punt or kickoff again from 2013 onward. But it took three years to get to that point with Dez and CeeDee Lamb is only coming into his second season, plus the Cowboys have a lot more insurance among the WR group.
Amari Cooper is still WR1 on this roster. Michael Gallup's still here in a neck-and-neck with Lamb for the second spot, plus. Cedrick Wilson provides intrigue as a backup. While CeeDee is expected to be the top dog one day, 2021 might be too early for Dallas to start giving him franchise WR treatment.
Sure, nobody wants to see Lamb or anyone else injured on a punt return. But if he's truly the best option by the time we get to Week 1, don't the Cowboys have to utilize him in a way that improves our chances to win games?
I'd be perfectly happy to see a lower-profile player emerge as the primary return man. But what I don't want is to see a bunch of fair catches or minimal returns because Dallas decided to play it safe.
If CeeDee Lamb is the best return man on the roster then the Cowboys should continue to use him in that role in 2021. Those plays can be true game-changers and Dallas can rarely afford to sacrifice any potential advantage they have.