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Can CeeDee Lamb Pass Justin Jefferson as NFL's Best Sophomore WR?

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 31, 2021

OXNARD, CA - JULY 24: Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb #88 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball during training camp at River Ridge Complex on July 24, 2021 in Oxnard, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb appears to be on the precipice of asserting himself as one of the league's elite wide receivers. 

Before he can do so, he must first show he's the best wide receiver from the 2020 draft classno small feat considering Justin Jefferson shattered rookie receiving records last season. 

The two aren't necessarily on the same trajectory, though. 

Lamb's ascension seems all but guaranteed, while Jefferson will have a difficult time building upon what he accomplished a year ago. 

Training camp buzz can be misleading. But praise toward Lamb has been consistent and constant. Furthermore, his natural progression coupled with a much-improved situation should allow him to explode in his sophomore season. 

To be clear, Jefferson is a fantastic talent and should continue to count himself among the NFL's top targets for years to come.

Even so, a quick look at last year's performance in comparison to the rest of the league provides a glass ceiling. As a rookie, Jefferson finished fourth overall with 1,400 receiving yards. Since the start of the 2015 campaign, Julio Jones and Michael Thomas are the only two 1,400-yard receivers to post more yardage the following season. Plus, the Minnesota Vikings haven't done much to improve his situation or create added opportunities, since the unit remains mostly intact after posting last season's 14th-ranked aerial attack. 

EAGAN, MN - JUNE 15: Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) makes a one-handed catch during Vikings Minicamp on June 15, 2021 at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
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If anything, the Vikings could take a slight step back after last season's offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, chose to retire. As of now, Klint Kubiak is an unproven play-caller. 

The situation in Dallas is far different, and Lamb should benefit greatly. An improved surrounding cast and an expanded role will help Lamb go from a rookie with a respectable 935 receiving yards to an every-down nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. 

Dak Prescott's return to the lineup will be a jolt to the entire Cowboys offense. Prior to his season-ending ankle injury, Prescott posted more passing yards in the first four weeks than any other quarterback in league history, as Pro Football Focus noted. 

Granted, Prescott is currently dealing with some shoulder soreness, and the team plans to take it slow with his recovery. At the same time, he should be ready for the regular season, thus giving the Cowboys top-tier quarterback play once again. 

Prescott sees something special in Lamb, too. 

"CeeDee [Lamb] continues to make play after play, catch after catch that are jaw-dropping," the quarterback told reporters. "It looks like another 88 that wore that number. It's impressive."

A growing comfort level and confidence from the franchise quarterback go a long way for a receiver. 

Sure, the Cowboys have Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup on the roster. But the passing offense should dramatically improve with Prescott back in the lineup. After the starter departed, Andy Dalton averaged 184.7 fewer passing yards per game. The Cowboys offense could see a drastic difference in explosivity once Prescott is ready to roll, especially with a healthy offensive line. 

Last season, the standout trio of left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and right tackle La'el Collins combined to miss 36 games. 

"Obviously, those guys are a big part of this team," offensive coordinator Kellen Moore told reporters when asked about his returning linemen. "They've been that way for a long time. … They look like they are in really special shape right now, ready to go play some football. We're all really excited."

OXNARD, CA - JULY 24: Running back Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys runs a play during training camp at River Ridge Complex on July 24, 2021 in Oxnard, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

A better, more streamlined version of running back Ezekiel Elliot showed up to camp as well. The 26-year-old ball-carrier posted career lows last season in rushing yards (979), yards per carry (4.0) and total touchdowns (eight). 

"Just having the year I had last year, you don't need more motivation than that," Elliott told reporters. "I just know the type of player I am. I don't think I showed that last year. I got a lot to prove. I just made sure I didn't leave any doubt out there that I didn't do as much as I needed to do."

The two-time rushing champ will remain an offensive focal point, but he'll also create more opportunities by converting first downs and making defenses adjust to his performance. 

Elliott understands how Lamb will ignite the scheme and not just benefit from these improvements to Dallas' offense. Unlike Prescott, the running back hasn't been in awe of what last year's 17th overall draft pick continues to do in training camp. 

"Used to it. Kind of expect it out of CeeDee. We know he has that X-factor to him," Elliott told reporters. "... He's supposed to do that."

A player can be talented. He can show up every day at practice and ball out. He can do everything that's asked of him. But none of it matters if the coaching staff doesn't place him in a position to succeed that maximizes his talent. 

Moore admittedly limited Lamb's role because of the extenuating circumstances and lack of overall preparation time. As NBC Sports' John Daigle noted, Lamb ran 93 percent of his routes from the slot. He finished first among rookies last season in receptions (69), yardage (877) and touchdown receptions (five) as an inside receiver, per PFF

While extremely effective working from the slot, Jefferson played far more as an outside receiver in the Vikings scheme. The Vikings allowed their first-year target to do a little more in the offense. The Cowboys plan to rectify last season's approach, though. 

"Last year with the compressed offseason, he played a lot in the slot," Moore told reporters. "And obviously we want to move him around a lot more. So hopefully that provides us the versatility to move those guys around to different positions, create matchups, put guys where we want them to be to hopefully be successful. And CeeDee's one of those guys.

Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

"He's going to play all over the field. He'll line up everywhere across the field and we're going to have fun doing it."

The coordinator made a significant point. Dallas became too reliant on Lamb working out of the slot without trying to generate mismatches. Defenses could key on him at all times because those units regularly knew what to expect. By moving the talented wideout around, more opportunities for big plays should arise.

Offenses are at their best when they can identify weak spots and attack them. The Cowboys couldn't do so last season. This fall's approach should be drastically different with multiple looks to keep opponents on their heels. 

Lamb and Jefferson are two of the NFL's most gifted receivers. As rookies, both showed why they were worth first-round selections. In Year 2, an opportunity exists for Lamb to enter a different stratosphere. 

     

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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