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Where does CeeDee Lamb fit in the Cowboys’ offense?

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CeeDee Lamb entered the 2020 draft as a highly touted prospect with a lot of hype surrounding him. Expectations only grew after the Dallas Cowboys, the most publicized and polarizing team in the league, selected Lamb with the 17th overall pick. Lamb steps into what at first appears to be a crowded Cowboys receiving corps. However, there is plenty of opportunity available, and coach Mike McCarthy’s offense will help Lamb make the most of that.

First, we’ll look at CeeDee Lamb as a prospect, demonstrating why he’ll succeed in the NFL; then, how his skillset will help him succeed in the Cowboys’ offense. Finally, we’ll consider the fantasy implications of Lamb’s first year in this high-powered attack.

CeeDee Lamb breaks a tackle against Iowa State.
Image credit: SI

CeeDee Lamb draft profile

Consistent, high-level production

CeeDee Lamb was a star as soon as he stepped onto the field at Oklahoma. He recorded 46 catches for 807 yards and seven touchdowns in his freshman year, and was selected to the Freshman All-American team. The following year, he caught a career high 65 passes for 1,158 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Of course, he played with Heisman-level quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray his first two years. The most significant part of his production is that it continued even with the subpar passing of Jalen Hurts. In fact, his output took another step forward despite the drop in QB play. He recorded 62 catches for 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns in 13 games his final year.

He posted a staggering 21.4 yards per catch (YPC), third most in the entire country. The two receivers ahead of him in YPC had 29 and 24 catches, less than half of Lamb’s totals. Lamb was one of the most highly efficient receivers in the nation while also commanding a high volume of passes. He had 93 targets, and ranked first in yards per target (14.3) and yards per route run (3.9).

These numbers inspire confidence that Lamb’s game will translate to the next level. But what traits specifically will help Lamb against NFL-level talent?

Getting open

This heading isn’t specific because Lamb doesn’t have one specific way he wins against coverage. He has a number of ways in which he is able to create separation and provide a target for his QB, whether he’s playing on the outside or in the slot. Simply put: he knows how to get open.

Against zone coverage

Lamb is at his best when he is going up against zone coverage. Zone coverage rely on defenders covering specific parts of the field, instead of individual receivers. Lamb consistently shows the ability to find the holes in these zones, exploiting the defense for big gains. A great example of this ability is on display in his game against UCLA in 2019:

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In this clip, Lamb lines up in the slot on the left side of the offense. He runs a route across the middle of the field that takes him through the zones of two linebackers. As Lamb moves past the first defender, he understands the best place to attack the second defender and slips behind him. He creates a wide-open look for himself and creates an easy touchdown for the offense.

Another detail to notice in this clip is something called “variable speed.” This means that Lamb controls the pace at which he runs his route in order to create separation between himself and the defender. This clip shows Lamb starting his route slow, before speeding up suddenly. Lamb waits until he is in the blind spot of the second defender before accelerates in order to catch the defender off-guard and create space for a pass to come his way. This indicates that Lamb considers the small details when running routes, an important part of becoming a top receiver in the NFL.

Against man to man coverage

Lamb shows this same attention to detail versus man coverage as well. Consider this example from the same game:

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On this play, Lamb lines up to the left on the outside of the offensive formation. He faces man coverage, and starts by attacking the defender vertically by running straight up the field. About 2/3 of the way through the route, he subtly shifts his weight inside, forcing the defender to turn both his eyes and his hips briefly towards the middle of the field. As soon as this happens Lamb drops his hips and breaks towards the outside of the field, creating five yards of separation and securing the catch. This level of route running will help him against NFL level competition.

Body control + contested catches

Along with his route running, Lamb shows the ability to use his strength and body control to create some space for a successful catch. He demonstrates this against Alabama in the National Semi-Final Game in 2018:

On this play, Lamb actually runs straight towards the defender before breaking towards the near corner of the end zone. He does this to keep the defender on his inside hip. As he initiates his break, he pushes the defender’s arms away from him and uses that leverage to create a small amount of space to receive a pass. He then demonstrates his elite body control by flipping his body towards the outside of the field, keeping his concentration, and making the catch right between the sideline and the defender.

This level of control is crucial, as defenders in the NFL contest passes much better than their college counterparts. Lamb has the size and skill to continue this level of success on contested catches in the NFL.

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Yards After Catch (YAC)

Some receivers have an innate understanding where to attack the defense after they secure a catch. CeeDee Lamb is one of those receivers. Lamb’s proficiency after the catch is perhaps his best trait as a prospect. It seems like at least once a game he’ll slip past a few tackles and makes a big play from a short pass.

Lamb has excellent balance and strength that allow him to break through tackles in a way that most receivers can’t. Beyond that, he has a nose for making the big play. If there’s a gap in your defense, Lamb is going to find it. This play demonstrates that beautifully:

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Lamb uses his balance to cut sharply and make the first guy miss altogether, then uses his strength to slip through the tackle from the second defender. He then catches the other three defenders off guard and turns the corner before they can get their hands on him.

It’s hard to imagine any other receiver in college football making this kind of play after the catch, and demonstrates perfectly the kind of special play-making ability Lamb brings to the Cowboys this season. But what role will he fill in the offense?

Lamb in the Cowboys’ offense

What offense will the Cowboys use in 2020?

To know where Lamb fits, we first have to know what kind of offense the Cowboys will be running. New head coach Mike McCarthy is a proponent of the West Coast offense, a system much different from the Air Coryell offense that Jason Garret ran.

The Air Coryell offense focuses on stretching the defense vertically, requiring the receivers to run lots of routes down the field. The West Coast offense, however, focuses on the opposite: short, high percentage throws that allow receivers to get the ball quickly and make a play after the catch.

The Cowboys’ 2020 offense will probably be some kind of mixture of these two philosophies. It doesn’t make sense to completely abandon a scheme that led your team to a top five offense the year before. But McCarthy spent a year off the job revaluating and retooling his offense, and he’ll certainly have new plays and concepts he wants to introduce to their playbook.

Lamb’s natural fit

Image credit: Houston Chronicle

The offense could be a mixed bag, but McCarthy’s background with the West Coast offense plays perfectly with Lamb’s strengths as a receiver. He was top ten in YAC on out routes, dig routes, and curl routes, all routes commonly used in West Coast plays. West Coast offenses also place a premium on receivers who can make plays with the ball in their hands, which is one of Lamb’s bets traits as a prospect.

McCarthy will certainly utilize those concepts to get the ball to Lamb in space, where he could make an immediate impact in his first year on the team. The only question we have to answer for fantasy is, “how often?”

Normally, rookie receivers don’t receive a large workload in their first year. It takes most rookies time to adjust to the higher level of competition. But Lamb’s YAC ability and his attention to detail could help him get to speed quicker than others.

He also has a chance to see a larger role than most rookie receivers. The Cowboys vacated 190 targets over the offseason, and are expected to pass at a similar or higher rate than last year. CeeDee Lamb gets first dibs on the biggest chunk of those. Randall Cobb, the third receiver for the Cowboys last year, saw 83 targets, and Lamb could come to command even more over the season.

It’s not unreasonable to expect 6-7 targets per game for Lamb once he gets acclimated to the new offense. With a lot of those being high percentage throws, and with his ability to make big plays after the catch, Lamb could produce bigger numbers than expected for a first-year receiver.

Projections

95 targets/65 catches

900 yards/6 TDs.

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CeeDee Lamb is currently being drafted in the ninth or tenth round according to Fantasy Football Calculator as the WR40. These projections place him at 191 PPR points, which would place him at WR30 overall and a viable WR3 on most teams. Like the other Cowboys receivers, Lamb is a good bet to meet or exceed his expected value at his current ADP.

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