The onset of the storied 2020 wide receiver class is underway, and as always, things aren’t exactly as we expected. Henry Ruggs III, the top wide receiver selected, hasn’t yet gotten on the same footing with Derek Carr as they try to open up the deep passing game in Las Vegas. The same could be said for fellow first-rounder Jalen Reagor and his quarterback Carson Wentz in Philadelphia, and now Reagor looks like he’ll miss significant time with a thumb injury. Denver’s Jerry Jeudy’s been dealing with the dropsies and will see his starting quarterback Drew Lock miss a few weeks with injury. San Francisco’s Brandon Aiyuk both has his own injury issues from camp and his starting quarterback’s current injury with which to contend.
A lot of careers are starting with bumps; CeeDee Lamb’s is not.
The WR1 from the 2020 class on the TDN Consensus Board and a top-10 player on my personal board, Lamb fell to the Dallas Cowboys at No. 17, who laid aside their pre-draft assumptions and refused to look the gift horse in the mouth. Despite joining a team with incumbents Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper, who already represent a top-three WR1/2 duo in the league, Lamb’s produced as expected in 2020. He’s second on the team in targets, first on the team in yards per route run, and is 12th among all wide receivers in Next Gen Stats’ YAC over Expectation. No rookie wide receiver has received a higher volume, and he’s staying efficient.
The good news for Dallas is that it’s only just begun.
Because of the talent at outside receiver for the Cowboys, Lamb has started his career primarily as a slot receiver. After playing as a move piece in the spread-y Lincoln Riley offense in Oklahoma, it’s an appropriate deployment. Lamb is frequently put in motion across the formation and has received scheme touches on jet sweeps and quick screens, as well as on play-action crossers. The Cowboys are leveraging his space athleticism as a YAC player similarly to how Jacksonville has been using Laviska Shenault—just without the additional trappings of a hybrid running back player. Lamb’s 74 snaps from the slot are third-most among all receivers in 2020 behind Tyler Boyd and Isaiah Ford, per PFF.
Lamb has delivered on expectation despite the challenges presented by an abbreviated camp and a crowded wide receiver room, as we said—but his dawn is likely still on the horizon. On Sunday, the Cowboys face the Seattle Seahawks in the late afternoon window, in what figures to be one of the most high-scoring games in the early season. The Seahawks added Quinton Dunbar to their cornerback room to play opposite Shaquill Griffin on the outside, but this season, they’ve been second-worst in EPA allowed to pass-catchers lined up in the slot, and after absorbing a season-ending injury to safety Marquise Blair against the Patriots, are thin in slot defenders. The following week, Lamb faces the Cleveland Browns, who are just behind the Seahawks in the same metric. The only team worse than both are the Atlanta Falcons, on whom Lamb hung a team-leading 106 yards on six receptions.
Of course, Seattle’s early season gave them Julian Edelman and Calvin Ridley; Cleveland’s gave them Tyler Boyd and Mark Andrews. You can argue that Lamb does not deserve to be mentioned among those players, but Lamb’s yards per route run from the slot this year is hanging at 1.78—a top-40 number among all pass-catchers in the NFL—and he’s about to get two of the softest matchups he’s seen yet, while his running mates see a stiff slate against Dunbar, Griffin, and Cleveland’s Denzel Ward (if he’s healthy).
With nine targets on the day in Atlanta, it’s clear that both play-caller Kellen Moore and quarterback Dak Prescott trust Lamb. With his target distribution and depth of target, it’s clear that they want to get the ball in his hands to ask him to create after the catch—that’s a recipe for high-reception days, and with three receptions over 20 yards already under his belt, he won’t be lacking for the explosive plays either. With Lamb’s catch rate and YAC performance considered, there is no rookie fear, crowded room, or matchup dictator that would do anything to take the ball out of Lamb’s hands. Rather, he’s going to start getting it more.
Early doors have focused on Shenault’s emergence as a Jacksonville skeleton key, Chase Claypool’s big-boy ball in Pittsburgh, and even Darnell Mooney’s vault into the Chicago starting lineup. But the rookie wide receiver story of the next couple weeks will be the guy who’s always been the story of this class: CeeDee Lamb.