CeeDee Lamb could emerge as a top-five receiver; plus, candidates for the cover of ‘Madden NFL 23’

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

— My top five candidates to grace the cover of Madden NFL 23.

— Examining the Steelers’ decision to hire Omar Khan as general manager.

But first, a look at one young playmaker who’s poised to make some serious noise …

Heading into a holiday weekend, we’re fielding reports from OTAs (organized team activities) across the league. This is a time when optimism abounds, with scouts, coaches and players buzzing about the hot teams and breakout candidates who could emerge in 2022.

While there is still a lot of work to be done in offseason workouts and training camp, the fantasy football crowd should pay close attention to the buzz coming out of Dallas regarding CeeDee Lamb’s potential as a true WR1 on the perimeter. The third-year pro is not only poised to carry the Cowboys’ passing game in 2022, but I believe he could emerge as a top-five NFL receiver.

If you need to take some time to re-read the previous sentence and fully digest what I am telling you, have at it. But yes, in the wake of Amari Cooper’s relocation to Cleveland, No. 88 is on the verge of putting up monster numbers in a prolific offense.

I’m not here to dismiss Cooper’s talent, but injuries and inconsistency were reducing the four-time Pro Bowler’s impact in Dallas. Consequently, the Cowboys cleared the deck for Lamb — the No. 17 overall pick in 2020 — to get maximum usage as a dynamic playmaker.

“This is a great opportunity for him personally,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “I think just the way we’ve established the offense, particularly in the passing game, the ability for those guys to play different positions, to create matchups and make it harder on the defense to double you and those type of things — my point is, playing in the slot a lot last year and now playing the flanker position (where Cooper played).

“And we understand his rise in Year 3, that he’s going to get a lot more attention from the defense. But he’s doing all of the little things that are needed to get him ready to be the No. 1 guy.”

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The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder has shown spectacular potential in his first two NFL seasons. As a rookie, joining an offense that already had Cooper and Michael Gallup established in the starting lineup, Lamb caught 74 balls for 935 yards and five touchdowns. And he really started to grab the WR1 torch this past year, leading the Cowboys in targets (120), receptions (79) and receiving yards (1,102), scoring six more touchdowns in the process. With Cooper traded away just before free agency opened this offseason, Lamb’s now in position to really show the NFL world what he can do.

“It’s a dream that I’ve always wanted to live, and now that I’m actually living it, I feel like it’s my opportunity to fulfill it,” Lamb said on Wednesday.

Studying the film, Lamb’s move to flanker will enable the Cowboys to line him up all around the formation as an “off the ball” receiver. The clever utilization of motions and shifts will not only make it harder for opponents to bracket or double-team Lamb, but it could help him see fewer snaps against bump-and-run coverage. With free access off the line of scrimmage, the dangerous playmaker could twist defensive backs into knots with his dynamic stop-start quickness and short-area burst complementing crafty route-running skills. In addition, the experience from playing the “X” (split end) and “F” (slot) positions will make it easier for offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to get the ball into the 23-year-old’s hands on key downs.

No. 1 receivers are expected to put up big numbers against any defender or defensive tactic that they encounter. Lamb’s skills, versatility and explosiveness should enable him to dominate on the outside. From his catch-and-run playmaking to his jump-ball ability, Lamb has shown that he can win his one-on-ones. The move to “Z” should only enhance his chances of getting the ball on the perimeter.

If Lamb gets touches as frequently as most No. 1 receivers around the league — the top-10 target totals ranged from 146 to 191 last season — he should easily top the 100-catch mark and finish with somewhere around 1,500 receiving yards. It’s quite possible he could rack up double-digit touchdowns, too. Those kinds of numbers will not only put him into consideration as a top-five receiver, but he could vie for the receiving triple crown (receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions) if Dak Prescott finds him early and often in the passing game.

“I’ve been ready,” Lamb said this week. “That’s just me and my competitiveness. That’s in my nature. It’s kind of how we grew up playing football. I’m always ready for my name to be called.

“Just stepping up regardless of any situation — first down, second down — just always being that guy that everyone can count on. I want to be that guy.”

When Lamb fell into Dallas’ lap midway through the first round back in 2020, the Cowboys pounced, with plans to eventually elevate the big-play specialist into the lead role in the passing game. That time has come. And I believe Lamb will deliver in a manner that’s something to behold.

Madden cover candidates: My top five

We are closing in on one of the biggest announcements of the offseason …

Who’s going to grace the cover of Madden NFL 23?!

The cover selection has been a June reveal in each of the past two offseasons. Traditionally, this honor goes to one of the best (or hottest) players in the league. Given John Madden’s passing in December, though, some feel this year’s cover should celebrate the game’s namesake. I can’t argue with that sentiment — not at all. But if EA Sports goes the player route, who’s the man of the moment?

As a former NFL scout and onetime expert gamer (trust me — I could handle the sticks!), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to come up with a list of worthy candidates prior to the announcement. Here are my top five, presented in countdown fashion.

There’s plenty of speculation that 2022 could be the seven-time Super Bowl champion’s last season, given that he briefly retired this offseason and already has a $375 million announcing gig lined up for his post-playing career. With that being the case, the Madden cover could commemorate the experience like a Farewell Tour poster. Brady’s unparalleled résumé as the NFL’s ultimate winner nixes any debate about who is the G.O.A.T. in this league. Considering the 23rd-year veteran is also fresh off one of the best statistical seasons of his career — at age 44, no less — Brady should be in the conversation. The biggest thing holding back his candidacy: TB12 just shared the cover with Patrick Mahomes.

The 23-year-old has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting defensive playmakers in the league. As the NFL’s reigning interceptions leader with 11 picks — the highest single-season total in 40 years — Diggs has spectacular ballhawking skills. Admittedly, this overshadows the mental lapses and high-risk gambles that, at times, make him a liability on the island. That said, the third-year pro’s turnover prowess is his superpower. And yes, Cowboys fans, you could also make an argument for Micah Parsons here.

If the game makers are looking to forecast the 2022 league MVP, they could easily cast their lot with the Bills’ franchise quarterback, given his potential to put up ridiculous numbers while leading his team to the promised land. Allen has joined the ranks of the elite at the game’s most important position; in fact, a five-star season could put him in play to wear the crown as the NFL’s new QB1. Considering how the football world adores blue-chip quarterbacks, Allen’s emergence as a dual-threat superstar could make him the perfect cover selection.

Having just tied Michael Strahan’s single-season record with 22.5 sacks in 2021, Watt clearly has solidified his standing among the NFL’s top QB hunters. In five seasons, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has amassed 72 sacks, 80 tackles for loss, 22 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and four interceptions. With few defenders capable of rivaling his game-wrecking ability off the edge, Watt deserves cover consideration as the premier playmaker at his position.

Kupp just staked his claim on top-dog status at the receiver position, earning 2021 Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl LVI MVP honors. He also joined a rare fraternity as the fourth player since the AFL-NFL merger to achieve the receiving triple crown (league leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns), alongside Steve Smith Sr. (2005), Sterling Sharpe (1992) and Jerry Rice (1990). The sticky-fingered pass catcher is currently the model of consistency and excellence at the position. Factoring in the postseason, the Rams’ first-team All-Pro WR tallied 90-plus receiving yards in 19 of 21 games, including an NFL-record streak of 13 in a row. It’s hard to argue anyone enjoyed a better 2021 campaign than this guy.

What to expect from new Steelers GM

If you are surprised by the Steelers’ promotion of Omar Khan to general manager, you probably have not paid close enough attention to the way one of the NFL’s most successful franchises operates.

As a model of consistency and stability, the Steelers are run like a family business with leaders groomed for larger roles from the moment they join the organization. While the developmental model has been a core part of the franchise’s roster-building philosophy, it has also helped the team remain a contender throughout the years with minimal turnover in key front office positions.

In elevating Khan to succeed longtime personnel chief Kevin Colbert, the Steelers are promoting a member of their front office who has been with the team since 2001. Khan’s 20-plus years of experience working under Colbert not only ensures consistency in player evaluation but also in the relationships that have been established within the building.

“There’s not going to be a lot of change here,” Khan said on Friday during his introductory press conference. “I obviously have a lot of ideas that I want to implement and put in place, but I don’t see a lot of change.”

The commitment, accountability and trust established between Khan, Mike Tomlin and members of the coaching and scouting staffs should ensure the team continues to add players who fit the culture created by the six-time Super Bowl champions.

Although I have not worked for the Steelers, I’ve been around enough of their coaches, scouts and players to understand that they covet blue-collar players with team-first attitudes and winning pedigrees. Despite the less-than-flattering perception that many now associate with some of their best players in recent history (SEE: Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell), issues largely emerged AFTER they were already established players who had carved out their roles through hard work and superior performance. The Steelers have never shied away from taking on big personalities as long as they fit into the fabric of the team and embrace the hard-nosed approach that is essential to the squad’s success.

While Khan made clear on Friday that the team’s approach to player evaluation and acquisition will remain the same, the hiring of assistant general manager Andy Weidl could provide a different perspective in the decision-making process. The veteran scout has spent time with the Saints, Ravens and Eagles after getting his start with the Steelers in the late 1990s. Weidl’s experience with Baltimore, in particular, could come in handy, based on the Ravens’ success in drafting and developing players throughout Ozzie Newsome’s tenure as general manager.

I realize past performance doesn’t guarantee future success. However, consistency and stability are admired — and often a harbinger of wins — in the NFL. With that in mind, I expect the Steelers’ recent front office moves will continue to make them the envy of others throughout the league.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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