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Next great 88? Dallas Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb proving all the hype is legit

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CeeDee looks NFL-ready (0:18)

New Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb works on his skills. (0:18)

FRISCO, Texas -- One practice. That's all it took for wide receiver CeeDee Lamb to make quite the impression with the Dallas Cowboys.

As Lamb, the Cowboys' 2020 first-round pick, sprinted toward the sideline, quarterback Dak Prescott's pass was high and a little to the inside. Instinctively, Lamb leaped, twisted his body to open his shoulders and threw up his right hand to make a catch that had everybody in attendance wondering what they had just witnessed.

Lamb just went back to the huddle for the next play.

"I feel like as a receiver, you have to expect the unexpected," Lamb said. "No matter where the ball is, it's your job to catch it. The quarterback has done all the hard parts. He got the ball out of his hands. He made checks. He did everything else. Now it's you. Just understanding that everything is not going to go as planned and the ball is not going to be where it needs to be all the time. Prepare myself for the worst, and when the best happens, it feels great."

The Cowboys did not need to draft Lamb with the offense they already had in place, but they could not resist a player of Lamb's caliber. And the expectations seem to grow each day. That's the price of being a first-round pick of the Cowboys and wearing the famed No. 88 on your back -- the same number worn by Dallas stars such as Drew Pearson, Michael Irvin and Dez Bryant.

"It's a big tradition and a big thing here in Dallas and wearing that No. 88 means a lot to myself now, and for sure to Dallas," Lamb said. "And I'm going to do everything in my power to [uphold] that trophy number and do my best to keep it going."

Amari Cooper said the Cowboys' goal is to have three 1,000-yard receivers in 2020 after he and Michael Gallup had 1,000-yard seasons in 2019. Just about everybody has co-signed Cooper's comment, including Lamb, even if it is a feat that has happened only five times in NFL history.

This is what happens when a talent such as Lamb, who was ranked as the Cowboys' sixth-best player on their board, unexpectedly falls to the No. 17 overall pick and to a Dallas offense that finished No. 1 in the league in yards in 2019.

As effortless as Lamb seems to make things, it has come with work. A lot of it.

'Had the will and determination'

Alex Ramart was Lamb's quarterback at Foster High School in Richmond, Texas, roughly 30 miles outside of Houston. They spent hours together during numerous spring and summer seasons. If they couldn't use the high school field to practice, they would retreat to another nearby schoolyard and find an open patch of grass, with Ramart throwing and Lamb catching.

Ramart was Lamb's quarterback during his junior and senior seasons at Foster and they would work on different kinds of catches.

"One-handed, one-handed back-shoulders, low balls, like he's making a diving catch. Over and over," Ramart said. "So that when it came to the games, he knows I'd have to make a certain throw and I know he'd make a certain catch."

Shaun McDowell, Foster's head football coach, knew quickly Lamb was not the typical freshman. He was rail thin, but he was always working. Lamb played on multiple 7-on-7 teams in the spring. He wanted to be tested in practice, always wanting to go against the best defensive backs.

"He was going to try to perfect his craft," McDowell said. "It reminded me of Dirk [Nowitzki]. Dirk always practiced all those different shots, off balance. All that. CeeDee, he'd practice one-handers, jump balls. He had the will and determination and the work ethic."

After committing to Oklahoma in 2016, Lamb would text Sooners outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons with questions about the position. He would send videos of his releases at the line of scrimmage, asking what he needed to do better. All of this came before he set foot on the OU campus.

Simmons coached Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech and Marquise Brown, Dede Westbrook and Sterling Shepard at Oklahoma. In 11 seasons with four teams, Crabtree, a 2009 first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, had 7,499 receiving yards and 54 touchdowns. Brown was the Baltimore Ravens' first-round pick last year and had seven touchdown catches. Westbrook, a fourth-round pick in 2017, has become a reliable threat for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Let's put it this way: Simmons knows what a talented receiver looks like.

"CeeDee very early on had a plan," Simmons said. "It was, 'I'm not just trying to be a good receiver. I'm trying to be the best receiver. Not just at Oklahoma, but the best receivers in the country.'"

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CeeDee Lamb could benefit the Cowboys in more ways than you think

Dan Orlovsky shows how CeeDee Lamb could improve the Cowboys' running game next season.

Hard to argue with the results

Lamb played with two Heisman Trophy-winning QBs -- Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns) and Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals). Last season, he paired with Jalen Hurts, who won a national championship at Alabama before transferring to Oklahoma. He caught 173 passes for 3,292 yards and 32 touchdowns in three seasons.

"I didn't really know much going into my freshman year just because me being a freshman and I was excited to be a starter and everything. But understanding the game as far as it slowing down for me started my sophomore year with K1 [Murray]," Lamb said. "He's done a great job of just helping me understand coverages more. My last year with Jalen, it was kind of OK, just taking that next step, refining whatever I have in my game. "

After catching 62 passes for 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns, Lamb was considered by many to be the best receiver entering the 2020 draft.

The Cowboys did not have a formal interview with Lamb at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, but receivers coach Adam Henry had an informal session.

"I'm talking to him, and in the back of my mind, I was like, 'There is no way I'm going to get this guy,' " Henry said. "It's like, I'm doing this interview, then come to find out we have some things in common."

Lamb was born in Opelousas, Louisiana, and Henry's parents were born there as well. Just like Lamb, who grew up outside of Houston, Henry grew up in Beaumont, Texas, roughly 80 miles outside of Houston. Their conversation became more about life rather than football.

Henry was not at The Star for the draft because of the coronavirus pandemic, and as a result, he had to watch it from home while connected virtually to the Cowboys' headquarters. Henry watched as Lamb fell further down the draft board than expected; prior to the draft, Lamb was expected to be the top receiver selected, but Alabama teammates Henry Ruggs (No. 12 to Las Vegas) and Jerry Jeudy (No. 15 to Denver) came off the board first.

"I'm watching everything unfold and I'm like, 'We have an opportunity to get this guy, but there's no way he's going to fall this far,'" Henry said. "Things like this don't happen very often. The opportunity of a lifetime only lasts the lifetime of the opportunity, then it's gone."

Dallas drafted the best player available, and so far in camp, Lamb has done nothing to disappoint.

"He's very smooth," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said of Lamb's play in camp. "He's very abrupt getting up the field with the ball. It just seems so natural and so easy to him as well."

It might seem easy, but Lamb is constantly asking questions. From Cooper, he wants to know the finer points of how to set up defenders on an option route while working in the slot, or the proper foot angle to help come out of a break. From Prescott, he wants to know what the quarterback thinks on certain coverages.

"Just so that he can be really detailed and aware of the way he was running it and make sure he wasn't wasting time," Cooper said.

Before camp started, Lamb was among the players invited to Prescott's house for workouts on the turf field the quarterback installed in his backyard this past spring. It was their first chance to get together given the unusual offseason because of the pandemic.

"He's a smart kid, a smart individual," Prescott, 27, said of the 21-year-old wide receiver. "He's been picking it all up. Whether it's adjustments from the formations and plays, that hasn't slowed him down or slowed his game down any bit at all. I mean, he's just an athletic player. Very, very gifted. Good hands. Has a great feel for the game.

"That's probably the most impressive thing, to be a young rookie playing in the slot and just have a feel for the game and know where to be. That's going to go a long way and serve him really well in this league."

'He's 1 percent of the 1 percent'

Back at Foster High, none of the accolades Lamb has received are surprising. Ramart said teammates used to tell Lamb all the time that he was going to be playing in the NFL.

"With CeeDee, it's hard to set expectations and them not be met by him," Ramart said.

As seniors, their goal was 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. By the third or fourth game, Lamb had close to 900 yards and eight touchdowns. He finished with 2,032 yards and 33 touchdowns.

"You see the tip of the iceberg but you don't see the bottom. He has a natural ability," McDowell said. "He's a 1 percent of the 1 percent of the guys that play in the NFL. He's that guy."

And Lamb, as a rookie, does not need to carry the Cowboys this season even though the franchise is one of three NFC teams not to have played in a conference title game in this century, along with Washington and Detroit. Lamb can be a piece of what could be a special offense with Cooper, Gallup, Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott.

"Being with those guys, having that experience around me, it just makes me feel better about myself as a football player, knowing I have guys who are actually young, but older than me and have a lot more experience than I do in this league that I can actually relate to," Lamb said. "Then having them going out every day in practice, working their tails off, me included, and seeing myself fit in with those guys, I love it."

Henry coached wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at LSU and with the Browns. He coached Beckham with the Giants as well. Beckham made a one-handed catch as a rookie against the Cowboys in 2014 that is still replayed to this day.

Henry understands the hype a young receiver, such as Lamb in his very familiar No. 88, can generate for a team and its fans.

"As of now, it's still early on," Henry said. "That's yet to be determined, but [Lamb's] upside is tremendous."