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Cowboys counting on CeeDee Lamb being ready to assume No. 1 receiver role

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Why Spears sees the Cowboys being worse this season (1:24)

Marcus Spears outlines why the Cowboys might take a step back this season. (1:24)

FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys gave CeeDee Lamb the No. 88 for a reason.

They better be right.

With the Cowboys agreeing to trade wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns, Lamb, their first-round pick in 2020, ascends to the clear-cut No. 1 receiver role. By trading Cooper, the Cowboys open up $16 million in cap room.

No. 88 is sacred in Dallas history. Maybe not as sacred as No. 12 for Cowboys legend Roger Staubach or maybe even No. 8 for three-time Super Bowl champ Troy Aikman. But with Hall of Fame receivers Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin, as well as Dez Bryant having worn No. 88, there is pressure on whoever wears the number to play up to the standard.

In his first two years, Lamb has handled it nicely. But the pressure will get ratcheted up this season.

He has to become quarterback Dak Prescott's go-to guy the way Pearson was for Staubach, the way Irvin was for Aikman and the way Bryant was for Tony Romo.

"He's a playmaker, and when you're very skillful and you have great awareness it's easy to get on the same page,” Prescott said of Lamb during last season. “That's credit to him of just being a young player and communicating through everything, us talking, whether it's option routes or whether it's whatever it is.”

In his first two seasons, Lamb has 153 receptions for 2,037 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2021 as an injury replacement after putting up 79 receptions for 1,102 yards and six touchdowns.

The Cowboys never thought they were going to be able to draft Lamb in 2020. They figured he would be long gone before they picked at No. 17 and could not pass on a player they had slotted among the top 10 players on their draft board.

Lamb has had some electric moments in his first two seasons. His best came in the overtime win at the New England Patriots in which he caught nine passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to win the game.

"I touch the ball from now on, it's definitely coming up as a catch," Lamb said after the win over the Patriots. "That's how I play."

The Cowboys have used him as a punt returner and have even given him the ball as a tailback.

But there have been too many moments where Lamb has not been a factor.

Look at their last game, the wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He caught one pass for 21 yards.

Whether it was the fault of the game plan, the attention from San Francisco or him, that can’t be the case now. He also needs to lower his team-leading seven drops from 2021.

Before Cooper arrived in a trade from the Raiders in 2018, Prescott struggled to reach 200 yards a game in passing. That was with Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Cole Beasley and a rookie Michael Gallup as his pass-catchers.

Cooper changed the dynamic but Prescott has developed greatly since then, too. He needs to prove he can remain a strong passer without Cooper just as Lamb needs to prove he can be a No. 1. The Cowboys clearly believe that is the case with Prescott since they signed him to a $40 million-a-year contract last March.

And Prescott will have a better crew around him from the beginning in 2022 than he had in 2018, starting with Lamb.

Gallup is close to remaining on a multiyear contract perhaps as soon as early next week but he will likely start the season on the physically unable to perform list because of surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in February.

The Cowboys placed the franchise tag on tight end Dalton Schultz, keeping Prescott’s security blanket in the fold for at least one more season.

The Cowboys are likely to lose receiver Cedrick Wilson in free agency next week but could add help in the veteran market or early in the upcoming draft.

Lamb, however, has to make the next step in his development.

And it has to be worthy of the No. 88.