The Cowboys weren't expecting to draft wide receiver CeeDee Lamb out of Oklahoma at No. 17 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. On most pre-draft big boards and mock drafts, Lamb was considered worthy of a top-dozen pick, with the potential to be the first wideout taken.
But when the Raiders and Broncos took the two Alabama prospects — Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy — instead at Nos. 12 and No. 15 overall, Lamb shockingly was still available when Dallas was on the clock.
Given the Cowboys just gave Amari Cooper a lucrative long-term deal and have one of the league's better third-year wide receivers in Michael Gallup, at the time, Lamb looked like either a luxury pick or a pick made just to keep Lamb rom the NFC East rival Eagles, who settled for TCU wide receiver Jalen Reagor (on IR with a thumb injury) four picks later at No. 21.
But going into Week 6, Lamb has been indispensable to the Cowboys' passing game working off Cooper and Gallup. The rookie is No. 6 in the NFL with 433 receiving yards, nine more than Cooper. He's done it on only 29 receptions, averaging 14.9 yards per catch and also scoring two TDs.
Lamb is not far behind the Cardinals' DeAndre Hopkins, who leads the league with 45 catches and 528 yards, along with his two TDs. When Lamb and Hopkins take the same NFL field for the first time on "Monday Night Football" (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), don't be surprised if they have similar highly productive games at the same time.
Listed at 6-2, 200 pounds and wearing Dez Bryant's old No. 88 for the Cowboys, Lamb also has a similar frame to the 6-1, 212-pound Hopkins. Hopkins, too, had to wait longer than expected in the 2013 draft, until the Texans took him No. 27 overall. Early in his rookie season, just like Lamb, it was evident Houston hit a home run with the pick, before whiffing on trading an older Hopkins to the Cardinals.
Lamb was a terrific technician as a prolific producer for the Sooners, for both future Cardinals QB Kyler Murray and and future Eagles QB Jalen Hurts. Lamb runs every route well, from short to deep. He adjusts his body well to make catches and shows great quickness in making plays after the catch. Lamb can also stretch the field when needed and position himself well to get open in the red zone.
All those high-level attributes drew worthy comparison to Hopkins in college. While the Raiders were enamored with Ruggs' vertical speed and the Broncos liked Jeudy's route-running and consistency, Lamb has proved to have a more complete game than both, with more big-play abilty and reliable hands. Lamb has a very impressive 72.5 percent catch rate on his 40 targets, while Ruggs is at 54.5 percent on just 11 targets with time missed for injury and Jeudy is at only 53.6 percent on 28 targets with multiple drops.
When Lamb was put into the mix with Cooper and Gallup, there was an expectation that Gallup would remain as the outside deep threat as "X", with Cooper and Lamb interchangeable to line up in the "Y" and "Z" spots inside and outside. While Gallup has the same role, Cooper has stayed as the "Z". Lamb has provided a major upgrade from Radnall Cobb manning the slot in Kellen Moore's offense, where he has seen 87 percent of his snaps.
Lamb has benefited greatly from seeing weaker coverage inside from nickel backs. That means he avoids top cover corners, too. For example, the Rams' Jalen Ramsey put the clamps on Gallup's vertical ability in Week 1, while the Giants' James Bradberry shut down Cooper in Week 5.
The bottom line is, teams game plan to contain Cooper and Gallup first. With his skill set, Lamb could easily be immediately playing outside for Dallas. Hopkins tends to see a lot of double teams and bracket coverage and still consistently produces. Putting up numbers wouldn't be as simple for Lamb outside, but he would still make a impact there.
The real luxury for the Cowboys wasn't drafting Lamb; it was the fact they could afford to put him inside. The Broncos are trying to do the same to get the best out of a rookie Jeudy, but that's become more difficult with go-to outside receiver Courtland Sutton out for the season.
Lamb did have great early chemistry with Dak Prescott, so the latter's season-ending right ankle injury was an unfortunate development. But Lamb can reheat with Andy Dalton. Keep in mind that two of Dalton's stronger connections outside of A.J. Green in Cincinnati were with slot aces Mohamed Sanu and Tyler Boyd.
Turns out, the Cowboys have needed to be more explosive with their passing game because of their major defensive issues. With Lamb, Cooper and Gallup all running routes and making catches, they are better positioned to win shootouts. They are definitely in for one with Hopkins and the Cardinals, with Lamb's former QB Murray ready to light it up with all of his weapons all over the field.
Lamb has quickly made the leap to be a lion in Dallas' passing attack, stepping into an ideal situation as an elite complementary receiver. There's no reason to think that his massive rookie smash won't continue for the Cowboys, building on his promise as the true best wideout prospect in the 2020 class with a Hopkins-like career ahead.