Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb is special. His career totals of 260 catches, 3,396 receiving yards, and 20 receiving touchdowns make him one of only eight players to haul in at least 250 receptions, 3,000 receiving yards and 20 receiving touchdowns since he entered the NFL in 2020. The other seven are among the league's premiere pass-catchers: Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs, Travis Kelce, Cooper Kupp and Tyler Lockett.
Mike McCarthy made Lamb his first draft selection upon becoming Dallas' head coach in 2020 with the 17th overall pick, and he is thrilled with Lamb living up to his potential through three seasons.
"You always knew CeeDee had it, you could see that right away when he came here as a rookie [as the 17th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft]," McCarthy said Tuesday. "You start outside [to see] what's his menu outside, and then you move him inside to see what's his menu inside. My point is as we move him around, we have to continue to create more opportunities for him."
As a rookie in 2020, Lamb played second fiddle to four-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper, which led to him primarily lining up inside at the slot position 91.2% of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. Lamb's 74 catches for 935 yards both ranked second behind Cooper that season while his five receiving touchdowns co-led Dallas along with Cooper and fellow wideout Michael Gallup. He broke out as a second-year player, surpassing Cooper as the Cowboys' leader in catches (79) and receiving yards (1,102) while getting significantly more run on the outside of the formation out wide, on close to two-thirds of his snaps (62.6%).
Last season -- Lamb's first as the Cowboys' unquestioned WR1 after trading Cooper to the Cleveland Browns -- he became one of the NFL's best, ranking tied for fifth in catches (107), sixth in receiving yards (1,359) and tied for sixth in receiving touchdowns (nine). Lamb possessed a more balanced snap alignment profile in 2022, lining up just over 50% of the time (52.7%) in the slot and just over 45% of the time (46.4%) out wide after Cooper's departure. His return to primarily lining up in the slot, the inside of the formation, paid massive dividends in McCarthy's "money zone." Lamb led the NFL in receiving yards out of the slot (867) in 2022 while ranking second in catches (63), four behind Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pro Bowler Chris Godwin's 67.
CeeDee Lamb career offensive snap alignment
*Data according to Pro Football Focus
"What I learned about CeeDee right away, which is what you look for in wide receiver is with his body type [6-2, 200 pounds], do they attack the interior routes?" McCarthy said. "That's where the money is at. The fastest way to the end zone is through the post [over the middle of the field]. Fastest way to the end zone is up the seams. His ability to get out there and outside the numbers is great. He has all that."
Lamb needed to be all of the Cowboys' passing game last season without Cooper because no other Dallas player totaled over 60 catches or 600 receiving yards. Lamb's 107 receptions accounted for 30% of the Cowboys' team catches total in 2022, the second-highest rate in the NFL, trailing only All-Pro Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill's 32% figure. The 24-year-old became the first Cowboy since Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Irvin in 1995 -- Dallas' last Super Bowl season -- to represent 30% or more of Dallas' catches in a season. In McCarthy's first season as the Cowboys' offensive play-caller, Lamb's heavy involvement will remain.
"I think what you're seeing is the natural progression," McCarthy said. "We understand what it was like when he was here as a rookie, but now, specifically last year, he was featured a tremendous amount in the pass game. We need to continue to do that, especially now that we have more speed around him, too [with the addition of]. We'll utilize that."
Lamb's uptick in production was especially apparent during the back half of the 2022 season, Weeks 10-18, when Lamb had over 10 catches in four of his final nine regular-season games and 100 or more receiving yards in five of his last nine regular-season games. His 65 catches and 803 receiving yards in that span both ranked third across the entire NFL in that span while his six receiving touchdowns from Weeks 10-18 ranked as the fifth most in the league.
It's a similar breakout, in McCarthy's mind, to some of his brightest Green Bay Packers wide receiver pupils from Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams. Adams has been a First-Team All-Pro in each of the last three seasons as his 43 receiving touchdowns since 2020 lead the entire NFL, and are 10 more than the next-closest receiver, Tampa Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans and his 33 receiving scores.
"I think CeeDee may have had a couple of balls early in the year  that may have gotten away from him, but other than that I never really had any doubts about him," McCarthy said. "I've seen them all go through it. I've seen Jordy [Nelson], Greg Jennings, and Davante Adams. It's a natural progression. It's usually that second year where you go 'oh ok, he has a chance to really be something really special.'
"I think his climb has been really consistent."
The Cowboys overall have been as about as consistent as it gets during Lamb's climb the last two seasons, going 12-5 in 2021 and 2022. Only the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (26-8) have won more games than Dallas in span. The last two years also represent the first time the Cowboys have won 12 or more games in consecutive seasons since they won three Super Bowls in four seasons from 1992-1995.
Their 2023 squad may be their best of the 21st Century, returning most of their pieces from a top five scoring offense (27.5 points per game, the fourth most in the NFL in 2022) and a top five scoring defense (20.1 points per game allowed, the fifth most in the NFL last season). They added another productive pass-catcher in Cooks and 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year cornerbackto both sides of the ball. Should Lamb keep climbing to new, productive heights, so too may the Cowboys come playoff time.