Cowboys' WR1: CeeDee Lamb or Amari Cooper?
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the best time of the year. No I’m not talking about Week 1 of the regular season, or even the playoffs or the Super Bowl. I’m talking about training camp. That’s right. The time of the year where every fan and every beat writer follows and reports on the team they cover as if they all have hope.
With such hope comes great content, and if you’ve paid attention to the Dallas Cowboys, the defensive side of the football might be shaky but the offense is generating plenty of hype. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who was on a record-breaking pace before getting hurt last season, is back and is already putting up highlight throws each day. Running back Ezekiel Elliott looks to be in the best shape of his life. And offensive tackle Tyron Smith showed up looking like an Autobot from Transformers (in the best way).
Then there’s the wide receiver group. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have been without wide receiver Amari Cooper to start training camp, as he is still recovering from ankle surgery he had following the 2020 season. He’s currently on the Cowboys’ PUP list, but according to head coach Mike McCarthy, "Amari, he looks great. Everything's been extremely positive from the strength staff. ... His weight is as low as it's been since I've worked with him, so he looks great.”
That is very good news to hear.
In Cooper’s absence, second-year wide receiver CeeDee Lamb has been stealing the show.
It really does feel like “another day, another insane training camp catch from Lamb.” As one of college football’s top wide receivers a few years ago, the Cowboys never thought they’d have the chance to select Lamb, even with them picking in the middle of the first round. So when he was still on the board, they jumped at the chance to get him.
During his rookie season, Lamb caught 74 passes for 935 yards—and that was with a backup quarterback most of the season. Lamb was already poised to make a big leap this upcoming year, but will it be a leap to WR1 over Cooper?
Lamb saw 111 targets last season to Cooper’s 130. Cooper hauled in 92 passes while, as stated before, Lamb grabbed 74. Cooper also had more than 1,000 yards receiving for the second season in a row with Dallas in 2020; it was his fourth straight year of more than 1,000 receiving yards total, including the season he was traded to Dallas in 2018. Lamb and Cooper had similar yards-per-target averages last season: Cooper had 8.6 while Lamb recorded an 8.4.
The big difference between the two was in where they were aligned. Lamb played 666 snaps in the slot while Cooper played that exact same number of snaps on the outside. Lamb played 61 snaps on the outside while Cooper played 270 snaps in the slot. Lamb also only played on 64% of the team’s offensive snaps last season while Cooper played on 82%.
Perhaps Cooper is still the team’s starting WR1 when he gets activated from the PUP list. I am here to tell you that the difference between WR1 and WR2 for Lamb and Cooper might not be very wide at all, and if it is, it might be with Lamb as the WR1. This Dallas offense is still going to be diverse. Not only do they have Lamb and Cooper, but they also have Michael Gallup, who was a 1,000-yard receiver alongside Cooper back in 2019. The Cowboys were a top-10 team in the NFL when it came to 11-personnel with three wide receivers on the field last season, so there should be plenty of action for Lamb to increase that snap count total in 2021.
Lamb was also one of the most efficient receivers in the NFL when it came to deep ball production in 2020. In fact, he had the No. 1 catch percentage in the NFL on throws beyond 20 yards. Even if Cooper gets more targets than Lamb does this upcoming season, if Lamb just plays more snaps, he could eclipse Cooper in yards and yards-per-target because of how good he is deep down the field.
When it comes to a decision between two receivers as talented as Lamb and Cooper, there really isn’t a wrong answer—especially because choosing one doesn’t eliminate the other. But there is reason to believe Lamb is the top receiver in Dallas when the regular season is all said and done.