When evaluating rookies in fantasy football, and especially in Dynasty formats, it’s important not to overreact to what we see at the NFL Draft. Draft capital is important, of course, as it’s a useful signal for how professional scouts view players and how teams may plan to deploy them. Unfortunately, those who hoped the Draft would create separation within this year’s wide receiver class were sorely mistaken, as six receivers came off the board in the first round between picks 12 and 25.
None of these receivers can really be said to have a large advantage over the others when it comes to draft capital – Brandon Aiyuk was confirmed to be in consideration by the San Francisco 49ers even at pick 13. Any of these players realistically could have been drafted over one another had anything broken slightly differently, so it doesn’t seem worth splitting hairs in this regard.
To whom might we look, then, to fill the spot of #1 receiver in the class? As you’ve likely guessed, I’m making the case for the newest member of the Dallas Cowboys, CeeDee Lamb.
The A.J. Brown Principle
“But Ryan, the landing spot!” I can hear you protest. “He’s stuck behind Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup!”
Remember what I said earlier about not overreacting to what we see on draft night? This is what I’m referring to.
The doomsayers came out in full force this time last year for A.J. Brown, who appeared to be stuck in an anemic offense behind Corey Davis. He’d been banished to Tennessee to compete for targets from the uninspiring Marcus Mariota.
It sure is interesting how quickly that situation changed, isn’t it?
Now, I also have to take responsibility here; I was one of the people dropping Brown in my rankings. “There’s no way he produces in Year 1 in that offense, right?” I thought. “I can just buy him at a discount next offseason.”
I won’t allow myself to make that mistake again. The truth is, situations change all the time in the NFL since a player’s opportunity can be so significantly affected by a single injury or transaction. Nobody expected Kenyan Drake to be leading the Cardinals’ backfield a year ago. Dynasty players thought Michael Thomas would be a complementary receiver coming into the league because of the presence of Brandin Cooks, who has been traded three times since then. The NFL is crazy and unpredictable, so when considering wide receiver value over an entire career, there is no reason to overthink the initial landing spot.
In any case, trying to predict immediate production from wide receivers is a fool’s errand. Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens training camps and preseason activities, rookie receivers are likely to take a much larger hit than their RB counterparts. While highly-drafted running backs can generally be expected to see opportunity and production early in their careers, rookie breakouts at the WR position are much rarer – and that’s without losing vital practice time over the offseason. We may not see any of these rookies break out this year.
All of this means that with wide receivers especially, it’s important to follow the talent and let the situation take care of itself. The talent leads us right back to CeeDee Lamb.
Examining the Talent
Standing at 6 foot 2, 198 pounds, Lamb was a popular top-ranked receiver before the NFL Draft. Bringing physical play, great hands, and a strange agility for a receiver of his build, Lamb tore up Big 12 competition beginning in his freshman season. Lamb was used all over the formation in college and should have no trouble sliding to the outside or into the slot. He was also used on special teams throughout his college career, a sign that coaches at Oklahoma saw him as their best playmaker.
In his sophomore year, Lamb broke out for over 1100 yards and 11 TDs on nearly a 20% target share, all while competing with an older Marquise Brown. A breakout at the age of 19 while sharing a field with first-round NFL talent bodes extremely well for Lamb’s transition to the next level.
His final season, Lamb posted over 1300 yards and a 77th-percentile Dominator, an impressive mark for a receiver at such a major college program. It was this year especially that Lamb showcased his run-after-catch ability, shedding tackles and juking defensive backs all throughout the Big 12. It’s also worth noting that his production did not suffer after losing quarterback Kyler Murray, with Lamb quickly establishing himself as Jalen Hurts‘s favorite target. We can’t really know how Lamb would have looked catching passes from a bad quarterback, but he had no problem taking dump-offs and jet sweeps for big gains. Luckily, with Dak Prescott under center in Dallas, the point is probably moot.
Lamb’s best attribute has got to be his shiftiness, thanks to the strange agility I mentioned earlier. He loves using hesitations, coming to a complete stop in front of a defender and then bursting away in a new direction. I really wish we had a 3-cone drill time for him just to confirm this isn’t an illusion resulting from bad defenses, but he had no problem gashing Baylor’s 20th ranked defense in the Big 12 conference championship.
Lamb also doesn’t possess incredible speed, but a 4.5-second 40-yard dash is perfectly acceptable for a receiver of his size. The combination of physicality, first-round draft capital, and elite early production at a major program make Lamb the most complete wide receiver prospect in this class.
Landing Spot Analysis
Even though I’m pretending not to care about it, Lamb actually has a better landing spot than A.J. Brown did. For starters, he’s matched with the best quarterback of any receiver drafted in the first round. Prescott attempted nearly 600 passes last year, good for 6th in the league. He averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and threw for just over 4900 yards. Dallas was just under league average in passing play percentage last year at 58%, and just above league average when adjusting for game script. The loss of CB Byron Jones could lead to the Cowboys seeing even more negative game scripts this year, further incentivizing passing. This is no longer the run-first team of old.
Critically, Randall Cobb has moved to Houston, leaving behind 83 targets. Jason Witten leaves behind another 83. Make no mistake; there are significant targets up for grabs in this offense, and Cooper and Gallup can’t absorb all of them. Dallas ran 67% of their plays out of 11 personnel last season. Lamb faces virtually no competition for that third spot in 3-wide sets – Tavon Austin was the only other Cowboys receiver who saw more than 10 targets last year.
Cobb’s departure specifically opens up the slot. Lamb could certainly do damage there, but he showed plenty of ability to play outside in college as well, should the team decide to move Cooper inside. No matter which way you slice it, Lamb will have an opportunity to show what he can do this year. There is nothing on this depth chart to prevent a 1st round pick with his pedigree from seeing the field, and a single injury to Gallup or Cooper would result in Lamb experiencing fantasy-relevant volume right away.
Regarding the longer term, although Cooper did just sign a massive 5-year, $100 million deal, the specifics of the contract are worth examining. None of Cooper’s salary after 2021 is guaranteed, and the Cowboys would only absorb a $6 million dead cap hit if they cut him then. The Cowboys have given themselves an out from that pricy contract should Lamb and Gallup prove themselves. Gallup’s cheap rookie contract also ends after 2021. Depending on the Cowboys’ cap situation at that point, we could easily be talking about Lamb as the clear #1 wideout in Dallas two years from now.
A Word of Caution
None of this is to say that anyone should count on real production out of Lamb this year. For all the reasons I’ve outlined, the rookie wide receiver position, in general, should be pushed down fantasy draft boards, especially this year with training camp feeling unlikely to happen.
My QB List colleague Michael Miklius recently wrote an article breaking down hit-rates at the fantasy-relevant positions. Historically, only 49% of wide receivers drafted in the first round have ever had a 1000-yard season in the league. There are five rookie RBs I would be drafting over Lamb right now, especially with each of the first five runners off the board save D’Andre Swift landing in average-to-great situations.
None of these receivers should be considered at the top of Dynasty rookie drafts, but Lamb could certainly have value in the back half of the first round. Let others devalue him and his landing spot at their own peril.
(Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire)