When the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles square off on "Sunday Night Football" this week, it will be difficult for anyone to focus their attention on anybody but the quarterbacks. Dak Prescott and Jalen Hurts are two of the leading contenders for the 2023 MVP award. The result of this game will go a long way toward determining whether one of them can take home the hardware, and we know that much of the discussion coming out of the game will be about the relative merits of each player when it comes to chasing a Super Bowl title.
But we shouldn't allow the quarterbacks to overshadow everything else. And we should especially not let them outshine their top targets, because CeeDee Lamb and A.J. Brown are each putting together special seasons worthy of consideration for both the All-Pro first team and even Offensive Player of the Year (though Tyreek Hill may ultimately pull away in the latter race).
Lamb and Brown are third and eighth, respectively, in catches, second and fourth in yards and tied for fifth in touchdowns leaguewide this season, and in the player-tracking-data-derived receiving rankings over at ESPN, Brown ranks as the NFL's best this season while Lamb checks in third.
But despite roughly similar production, they're actually used quite differently. While they have run nearly the exact same number of routes overall and have run an identical number of go routes, according to Tru Media, that's pretty much where the similarities end.
Brown lines up outside on nearly three-quarters of his routes. Lamb splits his time between the perimeter and the slot. (And since Dallas changed its offense philosophy in Week 6, that split has been almost exactly even.) Lamb goes in motion more than three times as often. Brown is used far more often in in-breaking routes (ins, posts), while Lamb is used more often on out-breakers (outs, corners). Due to the design of their respective offenses, Lamb also runs more slants and crossers, while Brown gets more hitches.
They're each more than capable of winning in a variety of ways, but the distinction I like to draw between them is that Brown wins in a "grown-ass man" kind of way, like an NBA power forward; while Lamb wins in a "smooth, silky athlete" kind of way, more like a shooting guard. They're equally impressive -- just in different ways.
At 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, Brown is a physically imposing force in the mold of a Terrell Owens. He does things both at the catch point and with the ball in his hands that most players in the league simply are not capable of doing.
Brown has five different receptions with over 20 yards after the catch, more than all but four other players leaguewide.
But more than the sheer volume of yardage he's gained with the ball in his hands, the degree of difficulty on some of his YAC opportunities is wildly impressive. It's hard to imagine many other receivers ripping off some of the gains he does, given that many of his big-time YAC plays come in close quarters.
Lamb is a bit slighter than Brown at 6-2, 200 pounds. He has a bit more shake to his game than his counterpart, and at different times plays more in the style of DeAndre Hopkins (when lined up outside) or mid-to-late career Larry Fitzgerald (once Fitz moved to the slot).
You can see a lot of the Hopkins stuff when the Cowboys run Lamb on seams or slot fades, and basically just tell him to "go up and get it" over the top of defenders in the area. He has excellent body control and is skilled at fighting off defenders in short areas.
Where I'm most impressed with Lamb, though, is in the variety of ways he can create space on corners and post-corner routes. He has so many different releases and so many ways to break off the stem of his route, and defenders are often just lost as he feigns an inside break, only to snaps it back off toward the sideline or the pylon. He gives Dak Prescott so much room to find him.
When these two teams meet on Sunday, each of these two superstar wideouts will be position for success based on the matchups they're facing.
Dallas has often preferred to keep Lamb in the slot against the Eagles to generate favorable matchups on the inside. We saw that in the previous meeting, when he racked up racked up 11 receptions for 191 yards on 16 targets. And we especially saw it in the late-2022 game where Prescott was healthy, Lamb had 10 grabs for 120 yards and two scores. But Philadelphia's perimeter cornerback duo of Darius Slay and James Bradberry hasn't been quite as much of a lockdown pairing this season as it was a year ago, and Lamb's combination of agility and short-area quickness could pose problems for them as well.
Brown "only" managed seven receptions for 66 yards and a score in the meeting between these two teams a few weeks back, but he went for 5-67-1 and 6-103-0 in the two matchups last year. It'll be interesting to see if the Eagles try to get Brown matched up on DaRon Bland more often than not, given how much Bland struggled with the similarly-physically-dominant DK Metcalf last week. The Cowboys should -- and likely will -- try to keep Stephon Gilmore on Brown as often as possible, while having Bland deal with the slithery, speedier De'Vonta Smith (no easy task itself, but a better fit for Bland's style).
However this Sunday plays out, both Brown and Lamb have shown that they deserve to be considered among the small handful of best receivers in the game, and that seems likely to remain the case for years to come.