'We're cooking now': CeeDee Lamb taking flight as Cowboys' No. 1 receiver

FRISCO, Texas – When he was just dreaming of one day playing in the NFL, CeeDee Lamb was able to go to a Houston Texans game. He was a running back then, so Arian Foster was his favorite player, but receiver Andre Johnson caught his eye.

“His physicality,” the Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver said. “I liked his swagger.”

When Lamb moved to wide receiver, Johnson became one of his favorites. He took to YouTube to study what made Johnson -- a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame after catching 1,062 passes for 14,185 yards and 70 touchdowns -- great.

“His first 5 yards; strong as hell,” Lamb said. “So if you thought you were pressing him, that’s not happening. If you played off, he’s going to come get you. And when he got the ball, that was a problem.”

On Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), Lamb faces the Texans (1-10-1) for the first time in his career. He will have about 25 family and friends at the game, up from the handful who might come to AT&T Stadium for each home contest.

While Lamb’s family and friends might know of his affinity for Johnson, anybody paying attention to the Cowboys’ offensive success over the last six games has seen Lamb ascend to a Johnson-like role with the Cowboys.

After being selected in the first round in 2020, the expectation was he would become the guy, which was accelerated last offseason when Amari Cooper was traded to the Cleveland Browns.

Heading into Week 14, Lamb is ninth in the NFL in receiving yards (928), 10th in receptions (69), tied for ninth in touchdowns (six), tied for third in catches of 20 or more yards (18) and 11th among wide receivers in yards after catch (330).

He is on pace for 98 receptions, 1,377 yards and nine touchdowns.

“I’m not nearly where I want to be yet at this position. Like, at all,” Lamb said. “And I’m growing, still figuring it out. But we’re enjoying the process.”

Coach Mike McCarthy has a long history of grooming young wide receivers into No. 1 roles through his time with the Green Bay Packers. He was confident in Lamb throughout, believing his ability to play inside and outside would make him a difficult receiver to defend.

“I can go back and look at Greg Jennings, look at his opportunities. Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, when those guys were given that opportunity to play both inside and outside, they go to a whole different level -- and CeeDee is in that mode right now,” McCarthy said. .It's exciting, and you can just see the confidence that he has in his route running, yards after the catch … I think he's doing exactly what we're asking him to do, and he's doing it at a high level.”

Lamb’s numbers have come despite playing just six full games this season with quarterback Dak Prescott, who suffered a fractured thumb in the fourth quarter of the season opener. Since Prescott’s return, he has 36 catches for 519 yards and four touchdowns. At that rate, he would finish a 17-game season with 105 receptions for 1,471 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“We’re cooking now,” Lamb said.

There are still some hiccups with their communication, like with Prescott’s middle-of-the-field interceptions against the Chicago Bears (Week 8) and Packers (Week 10).

However, their time on task, which started during the pandemic in 2020 at Prescott’s backyard field, is paying off.

“He runs a route," Prescott said, "I come back to him [and] say, ‘Don't try to run that route quite like the PowerPoint says. If you feel that guy, and you're ready to make that move, you do that. I'm watching you, I trust you. And I know you're going to run that with speed. So just be convicted in it, and I'm gonna make it work.'

“I just think having that constant communication and continuing to get more time on task and reps with one another, the sky's the limit. That's just an athletic player who's smart and wants to do whatever he can for this team. And it makes it fun for not only me but for everybody.”

Cooper Rush was starting his second stint with the Cowboys after Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in 2020. It didn’t take the quarterback long to figure out Lamb was going to be a top receiver. When Rush made the first start of his career last season against the Minnesota Vikings, Lamb caught six passes for 112 yards.

“The way that he comes out of the top of his routes and his ability to change when the ball’s in the air, that’s something that … he makes it easy throwing it to him,” Rush said. “He can change a gear and go get it. He plays bigger and stronger. He’s rangy. So he can catch it kind of anywhere.”

Last week against the Indianapolis Colts, he took a shallow crossing route in for a touchdown when he realized he was never down after rolling over a defender. On his final catch of the game, he took another crossing route to the Indianapolis 4-yard line, running over a defender.

“I mean if you’re watching the same games I am, I think you see it and you feel it,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “He’s just making plays, and you see his confidence going up. Certainly Dak’s confidence in him is going up.”

Lamb continues to learn. When Cooper was with the Cowboys, the receivers would talk about route-running tricks. He continues to look at YouTube.

“I watched what made guys great,” he said.

He studied Dez Bryant at the receiver’s peak in 2014-15. He studied Odell Beckham Jr. Even Percy Harvin.

“It wasn’t the body type, because I feel like if you’re good at football, bro, you’re going to play football,” the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Lamb said. “Look at [Philadelphia Eagles receiver] DeVonta Smith. My man is 175, but he’s a baller. Like you put the ball in his hands or make him go run a route, he’s going to go win. The height, weight, all that, it didn’t matter to me. It’s just what are you doing that made you so great. Like what is it?”

There could be some kid across the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex now looking at Lamb the way he did Johnson. Studying his first 5 yards, his ability to go get the ball and his run after catch.

“I will want that,” Lamb said. “That’s all coming from the game. This is a generational game, and it’s going to continue to grow. And then as it goes, the youth are going to be better than us because they’ve used what we’ve done to be successful [and] now put it in theirs and add their own little twist. That’s what I did for the group that was before me. I used bits and pieces, and then I took it between myself, and then I added my own little flavor.”