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Inside the battle between Dallas Cowboys second-year standouts CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs

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OXNARD, Calif. — The score, Trevon Diggs says, is 1-1.

Diggs broke up a pass Dak Prescott intended for receiver CeeDee Lamb in the left flat. Then Lamb, on the same route, snagged a one-handed, diving catch with Diggs in coverage.

“I had to get you back,” Lamb quipped to Diggs as he completed the highlight reel-worthy play.

“I’m going to get you back, too,” Diggs retorted, and the competition between the Cowboys’ top 2020 draft picks sparked anew.

The caliber of play isn’t entirely new for Lamb and Diggs, who each notched double-digit starts as rookies last season and led teammates in a host of statistical categories. But with their first full offseason—the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated in-person spring work last year and warped training camp—Lamb and Diggs exude intensity as they push themselves, and each other, to take the oft-discussed second-year leap.

“Me and T Diggs, we’re going to compete always,” Lamb said Saturday after the Cowboys’ second training camp practice. “We hold each other to a high standard.”

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Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (27) during training camp at the Marriott Residence Inn.
Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (27) during training camp at the Marriott Residence Inn.

During the 2020 season, Lamb’s high standard propelled him to catch 74 balls for 935 yards and five touchdowns, tied for the most receiving touchdowns on the team. But he sought to eliminate drops and fumbles, to rid his game of routes run imprecisely and cadence that wasn’t in sync with Prescott. Sure, Lamb will concede, he was effective from the slot even as the Cowboys cycled through four quarterbacks. But Lamb wants to contribute flexibly in the slot and outside, as well as on the punt return team. He gained roughly five to 10 pounds this offseason in hopes of shouldering a multifaceted, heavy load.

“Just kind of more muscle to take a lot more beatings, if you will, or hits,” Lamb said. “Play a lot stronger and faster. … I just want to be on the field.”

Diggs, too, is eager to capitalize on opportunities. Despite missing four games after fracturing his foot, Diggs recorded a team-high three interceptions and 14 pass deflections in his rookie campaign. No other Dallas defender deflected more than five in 2020. A sign the 22-year-old Diggs was in the right spot against offenses? That’s not how he views his stat line.

“I got my hands on 14 balls, and I ended up with not 14 interceptions,” said Diggs, who played receiver at the start of his college career at Alabama. “So that's a problem.”

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His offseason film study delved into what he considers 11 missed opportunities in hopes a second-year understanding of the pro game—comprehending more thoroughly an entire offensive scheme rather than just his man or area’s tendencies—will close the gap from deflection to interception.

“A DB don’t get many opportunities,” Diggs said. “You’ve got to capitalize on the ones you do get.”

In training camp, so far, Diggs has. Despite defender limitations in no-tackling drills, Diggs has deflected and intercepted first-team offensive targets. (He and quarterback Dak Prescott sparred cheerily after team drills last Thursday, Prescott betting Diggs $1,000 that he’d stepped out of bounds before landing with an interception on Prescott’s first throw.) After receiver Reggie Davis caught a pass in stride from Prescott downfield Sunday, Diggs maintained his pursuit. Diggs punched the ball loose, forcing a fumble.

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“Every play is all out,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He just brings an intensity to it. He’s so instinctive. His ball skills are unique. When the ball’s in the air, he’s like another receiver out there.”

That’s the aura Diggs hopes to deliver, keeping receivers wondering whether they can catch the ball before he does.

“You see me going for the ball and then you’re going for the ball (but) you’ve got to stop me from getting the ball, too,” Diggs said. “I want to challenge a wide receiver as well as he challenges me.”

In draft classmate Lamb, Diggs has worthy competition. Lamb’s 935 receiving yards ranked second among rookies last season but he expects even more success with the return of Prescott, whom Lamb lauds as energizing the huddle and lining teammates up properly. Lamb is eager to challenge cornerbacks like Diggs with the threat that he’ll pop out from slot or outside, running a reverse or bolting deep.

“We came in together both in Year 2, both have something to prove,” Lamb said. “Both just want to be better.

“He’ll see a lot of me and I’ll see a lot of him.”

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Three more takeaways from Cowboys training camp:

1. Most interesting position room: linebacker

The Cowboys’ No. 1 deficiency in 2020 was their run defense. Dallas was gashed for 158.8 rushing yards per game, second most in the league. This offseason, players, coaches and front office members took note. The unit now is the beneficiary of prime draft capital to the tune of 2021 first-rounder Micah Parsons, 2018 first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch and 2016 second-round selection Jaylon Smith. Add in fourth-round rookie Jabril Cox, whom Dallas felt was a steal that late in draft weekend, and free-agent acquisition Keanu Neal, who played for coordinator Dan Quinn in Atlanta?

“The competition is real,” McCarthy said before Sunday’s practice. “We are working different packages. We want to make sure we can utilize all those guys as best we can.”

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Quinn has emphasized specialization with his linebackers, Parsons likely replacing Smith as the starting middle linebacker and de facto quarterback of the defense. Smith, in turn, is expected to be freed up to blitz more frequently than previous Cowboys schemes have allowed him to. Vander Esch has demonstrated sure tackling when healthy (neck and collarbones injuries have plagued his career thus far) while Quinn anticipates Neal to bring physicality in the box. The unit understands the questions it must answer.

“We can’t,” Smith said, “be the problem as to why this team doesn’t succeed.”

2. Not just a pass rusher

Defensive end Randy Gregory returned from his most recent NFL suspension to play 10 games for Dallas last season. In 271 defensive snaps, Gregory collected six sacks, 25 pressures, 21 tackles and three forced fumbles. Now, he is participating in his first full offseason program since his rookie year in 2015, and the early returns are impressive. Sure, Gregory has managed to blow up the backfield in would-be sacks during team drills. But quarterbacks aren’t the only ones needing to fear Gregory. The 28-year-old busted a pair of reverses in training camp practice as well.

“As soon as we called the reverse, Kellen said it and then I laughed,” McCarthy said Sunday, “because I would never a run reverse to Randy Gregory back in the old days, and we ran two. Can’t get outside of him. He’s a great athlete definitely in space, but he has a really good understanding (of run defense). He has a knack for that.”

3. Run, Dak, run

Prescott has faced zero limitations through the Cowboys’ first four training camp practices. He competes in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, escaping the pocket and swarming pass rushers alike. Prescott begins each practice with footwork and resistance reps to loosen up. Sunday, he ran sideline sprints after the conclusion of team drills. Play calls have not emphasized his scrambling ability, but Prescott and coaches are confident he’s healthy enough to thrive there, too. But how much will the Cowboys tolerate running from a quarterback sporting a surgically repaired ankle and new contract worth $126 million guaranteed?

Moore insisted the Cowboys will not eliminate that dimension of their quarterback’s game.

“That’s part of what’s made Dak a really good football player,” Moore said. “There’s an element of being smart and understanding situational football, but I think it’s kind of foolish for us to take that away from him. He can still make plays with his legs. He’s got a runner’s mentality at times. Running someone over and trying to stiff-arm people is still a part of him.”

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Through his four-and-a-half NFL seasons, Prescott has rushed for 1,314 yards and 24 touchdowns. He’s averaged 5.1 yards per carry and earned 107 first downs by ground. Prescott will pick his spots taking off, but the Cowboys full expect him to harness his mobility to create opportunities for what they hope is an explosive offense.

“Where the NFL is right now, the best in the league, you got to be able to move around,” Moore said. “You’ve got to be able to play off schedule, make plays there whether it’s moving within the pocket, out of the pocket, still throwing, taking the run when they give it to you and scrambling for a first down.

“We still need all of that out of Dak.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys: Inside the battle between CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs

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