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Dallas’s CeeDee Lamb Pick Was More Than Just Another Flashy Move

When the Cowboys landed the former Oklahoma receiver last month, it set the football world abuzz. But the pick also offers some lessons about how smart teams build their rosters in the modern NFL.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No one expected CeeDee Lamb to wind up with the Cowboys. Most draft pundits saw the former Oklahoma star as a potential top-10 pick and arguably the best receiver in a historically loaded class. For a Dallas team picking 17th overall, snagging Lamb seemed like a pipe dream—and a contingency Jerry Jones and his staff likely hadn’t given much thought. But as the night dragged on and Lamb kept falling, the Cowboys brain trust had a surprising decision to make: boost an elite offense with the no. 6 player on their board, or fortify a position of need on their spotty defense. Dallas ultimately chose the former, bypassing the available pass rushers and DBs to add Lamb and complete what might be the strongest receiving corps in the NFL.

That pick quickly became the most talked-about move in what had, to that point, been a predictable first round. Considering that the sports media machine gets riled up every time a Cowboy blows his nose, Dallas landing one of the biggest stars in college football got the takes flowing.

Lamb on the Cowboys has the obvious appeal of a big-name prospect heading to one of the league’s most visible franchises, but the pairing also offers several lessons about modern roster-building—from the way that teams think about constructing position groups, to how franchises should address “needs,” to where smart front offices should devote resources. The Lamb pick was arguably the most exciting move of the first round—and it also might have been the most illuminating.

By now, most football fans understand that a team’s third receiver and nickel cornerback are considered starters. NFL teams spent about 60 percent of their snaps in three-receiver sets last season, and the Cowboys were well above that mark at 67 percent. During his final season with the Packers in 2018, new Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy deployed three receivers on 77 percent of plays—the highest rate in the league. Randall Cobb played 720 snaps as Dallas’s no. 3 receiver last season, and after losing him to the Texans in free agency, the Cowboys lacked a clear-cut replacement. Lamb may initially seem redundant next to Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, but there’s a starter’s workload waiting for him in Dallas, no matter his specific role.

Cobb is a prototypical inside receiver; 91.9 percent of his snaps last season came from the slot, the second-highest rate among qualified receivers. Replacing the small, shifty Cobb with a 6-foot-2 playmaker like Lamb isn’t a one-for-one tradeoff, but that might actually be a good thing. Lamb is no stranger to the slot. He scored seven of his 14 receiving touchdowns from there in 2019 and averaged 6.11 yards per route run, the best mark in college football. Considering that Dak Prescott finished third among QBs in expected points added last season, the new Dallas regime would be wise to adopt some aspects of last year’s offense. If McCarthy and holdover offensive coordinator Kellen Moore want to stick Lamb in the slot while using Cooper and Gallup as the team’s primary outside receivers, the Cowboys should be just fine.

But the added benefit of a talent like Lamb is that his versatility allows the offense to be more flexible. Cooper ran just 74 routes from the slot last season, one of the lowest totals in the league among starting receivers. But when given the chance to play inside, Cooper was dominant. Only Michael Thomas (3.36) averaged more yards per route run from the slot than Cooper (2.72) in 2019. It’s a small sample size, but Cooper’s history tells us that wasn’t a fluke: He led the league in that metric with the Raiders in 2016 (3.29) and posted top-eight finishes in both 2015 and 2017. Cooper’s short-area quickness lends itself to playing inside, and with Lamb stepping in for Cobb, the Cowboys no. 1 target—fresh off a five-year, $100 million extension—should get more chances to utilize his skill set. That would also allow Lamb to see more action on the outside, where he could show off his lauded ball skills and impressive contested-catch ability. When a player routinely gets compared to a young DeAndre Hopkins, relegating him to the slot would seem like a waste.

No matter where Lamb lines up, though, he’ll bring an element that the Cowboys’ high-powered offense lacked last season. Cobb averaged an impressive 6.2 yards after the catch in 2019, but that production was largely dependent on situation. That figure was only 0.6 yards better than NextGenStats’ expected YAC average, placing him in the middle of the pack among receivers. During his career at Oklahoma, Lamb was a monster with the ball in his hands. According to Pro Football Focus, Lamb broke 26 tackles on only 62 receptions last year, leading to an incredible 11 yards-after-catch average. Deebo Samuel’s success with the Niners last season will inspire some pale imitations around the league, but Lamb may actually be able to occupy a similar role. Productive offenses content to run it back with the same collection of players and bank on similar results often regret it; adding Lamb and his array of playmaking skills should help the Cowboys stay ahead of the curve.

Skeptics of the Lamb pick are probably wondering when all of this offensive firepower becomes overkill. Dallas finished second in offensive DVOA last season as Prescott threw for 4,902 yards and averaged 8.4 adjusted yards per attempt. Adding even more talent at receiver wasn’t a priority given the makeup of the Cowboys’ roster this spring. But that argument raises some important questions about how teams should allocate their resources.

With Prescott making $31.4 million on the franchise tag and Cooper now playing on a second contract, Dallas is devoting nearly 20 percent of its 2020 salary cap to two players. That type of commitment to an already potent offense would seem to necessitate using a valuable, cost-controlled resource like a first-round pick to improve a defense with multiple holes. But there’s plenty of evidence that maintaining a great offense is more important for long-term success than building a balanced roster.

One of the basic principles that’s come from Football Outsiders’ research through the years is that offensive success is more consistent and more predictable from year to year than defense. A team committed to building a top-10 offense is more likely to be an annual contender than a team committed to building a top-10 defense. Even franchises with elite quarterbacks have benefited from adding quality offensive pieces whenever possible. Take a look at how the Chiefs have built around Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City is set to spend 51.8 percent of its 2020 salary cap on offense. That’s the 13th-highest rate in the league—but it’s the third-highest mark among teams with starting quarterbacks still on their rookie deals. The two teams ahead of the Chiefs with rookie-contract QBs—the Giants and Texans—are also carrying bloated salaries for guys like Nate Solder and David Johnson, which artificially inflate those numbers. The Chiefs are one of only two teams with five non-QBs each slated to take up at least 4.9 percent of their 2020 cap. You could argue that even with the league’s best QB on the roster, no franchise in the NFL has devoted more cap resources to its supporting cast than Kansas City.

Like the Cowboys, the Chiefs also spent their first-round pick on a seemingly superfluous skill-position player—LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. There are established drawbacks to taking a running back that high, but multiple people have told me that Kansas City was also targeting some of the draft’s top receivers with that pick. The Chiefs are dedicated to giving their superstar quarterback every chance to succeed and are relying on their offense to fuel their annual playoff chances. Dallas may be in a slightly different position now that Prescott is set to make more than $30 million a year (either on the tag or a future extension), but the mind-set is the same. Lamb’s cap hit in 2020 will likely land somewhere around $2.5 million; he will cost less on this year’s cap than a forgettable free-agent option would have, and his potential gives this Dallas offense a considerably higher ceiling—both this season and in the future. The best comparison for the Cowboys and Lamb might actually be the 2014 Packers, who took Davante Adams in the second round despite already having Cobb and Jordy Nelson at receiver. Green Bay threw Adams into the mix as a rookie and finished no. 1 in offensive DVOA en route to Aaron Rodgers’s second MVP award. As Nelson entered the final phase of his career and ultimately moved on, Adams was there to take over as the Packers’ top receiver.

Lamb’s real price tag isn’t rooted in finances or cap space. It’s about opportunity cost. By adding a third receiver rather than a pass rusher or defensive back (a spot Dallas eventually addressed in the second round with cornerback Trevon Diggs), the Cowboys ignored an immediate weakness to bolster a current strength. That risk may leave Dallas vulnerable, but that framing also ignores how the concept of “need” shifts in the NFL. A player like LSU pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson would have filled a more obvious hole on the Cowboys’ roster than Lamb does, but it may not take long for those circumstances to change.

Gallup has two years remaining on his rookie contract. When his deal expires following the 2021 season, Cooper will be taking up about 8.7 percent of the cap. And if other high-priced stars like Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Zack Martin are still on the roster, Dallas likely won’t have the financial wiggle room to retain Gallup. With Lamb now in place, the Cowboys will have a starting-caliber outside receiver ready to take over in the event they have to move on. Lamb’s deal will likely pay him about $3.5 million in 2022, which could look like a bargain if he develops into the player the Cowboys envision. By adding Lamb to the offense now, the Cowboys are eliminating a potential need before it ever arises. That decision may have left Dallas thin along the defensive line, but after adding Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle and signing reclamation project Aldon Smith to play on the edge, the Cowboys seem to believe they can piece a pass rush together by committee.

The draft requires a delicate balance between drafting for need and taking the best player available. Most executives know they’re working on borrowed time, and that urgency often pushes them to make decisions for the here and now while ignoring the long-term implications. The Cowboys’ front-office structure leaves them somewhat impervious to that issue. As the team owner and ultimate decision-maker, Jones has a unique opportunity to run his team with no outside pressure. He doesn’t always make the most of it, but he is constantly in a position to choose the long-term health of his franchise over the shortsighted whims that hold other teams back. Adding Lamb to an explosive offense may seem like a showy move that indulges the worst impulses of a franchise with a flair for the spectacular, but it’s actually a shrewd, forward-thinking choice. Picking Lamb was the rare chance for Jones to have his cake and eat it too, and it’s set up the Cowboys to thrive this season and beyond.