A few days before the first round of the NFL draft this week, an AFC general manager was stacking up the best player at every position when he got to the 2020 wide receiver pool. Easily the draft’s deepest talent reservoir and quite possibly the best wideout group since the league’s historic 1996 class, it felt like an unavoidably long debate was about to unfold.
Instead, the general manager said one name — with emphatic emphasis — and closed any further discussion.
“CeeDee Lamb,” he said, pronouncing the Oklahoma wide receiver as the king of a wideout class that may ultimately produce several kings.
“No way he gets past the [New York] Jets [at the 11th pick],” the GM continued. “He might not even get past [the Arizona Cardinals’] eighth [pick].”
A voice on the phone line countered: “His speed, though. I think a lot of teams are looking for speed at the position.”
“He’s [DeAndre] Hopkins,” the GM shot back. “Hopkins isn’t fast, right? But he’ll catch everything and beats his [defender] up. Lamb is Hopkins. And when you look at some of the other receivers, [Lamb] doesn’t have some of the character stuff of some of the other guys.”
This is the assessment that resonated late Thursday night, after the Dallas Cowboys followed an ideology they often profess but occasionally don’t follow: Taking the absolute best player on their board, rather than a need that plugs a hole.
This is CeeDee Lamb. The wide receiver they didn’t necessarily need, but the pick that they will probably never regret. He’s the antidote to the Taco Charlton mistake in 2017, when Dallas took the softish Michigan defensive end with the 28th overall pick, only to have him followed on the draft board by four consecutive picks of tight end David Njoku, linebackers T.J. Watt and Reuben Foster and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Both Watt and Ramczyk were first-team All-Pros last season. Njoku has flashed talent at a position of severe need in Dallas, while Foster would be a star in the NFL if it were not for some staggering off-field issues.
Nobody will profess that’s a perfect foursome but it underscores what happens when a team takes a player like Charlton. Every Dallas fan is familiar with that 2017 first-round mistake of need-over-talent. Charlton was a second-round pick on most NFL boards, although he conservatively filled an edge-rushing need for Dallas after the franchise realized long-term problems with the substance-abuse suspensions of 2015 second-round pick Randy Gregory. What the Cowboys wanted was a blue-collar “works hard” kind of player who might be a little short on natural talent but long in his consistent availability.
What they got is what many teams often get when they draft for need over best value: An underwhelming performer who was dogged by a first-round tag that he was likely never going to live up to in Dallas. And after two seasons, he was out the door with little to show for the investment.
Make no mistake, Dallas could have gone that same route at the 17th overall pick on Thursday night. LSU edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson was sitting there — and most everyone in the league had earmarked either Chaisson, Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray or a cornerback reach for Dallas in the first round. When teams were asked to shape up some difference between franchises in the first round, the Dallas retort was almost always some variation of “no matter what, a defensive piece.”
And that made sense. The Cowboys had lost a tsunami of defensive players in the offseason and there was no clarity on whether guys like Gregory or free agent addition Aldon Smith would be reinstated for 2020. Or whether either of those edge rushers could contribute meaningfully, for that matter. Add it up and Dallas was a sensible defensive pick from having a quick first-round appearance and then turning out the lights.
Then something unexpected happened. Team owner Jerry Jones sat back in his draft room — which was quite amazingly constructed in the middle of his $250 million super-yacht — and he watched a star that he was very familiar with trickle down the board. The best wide receiver in their evaluations, who has been on the radar of both Jerry and Stephen Jones for years, got past the Cardinals at No. 8. The Jets, Raiders and Buccaneers came and went at 11, 12 and 13.
Lamb never should have made it past the 49ers at 14. That just wasn’t supposed to happen. Once he got by the Denver Broncos at 15, the reality sunk in: Unless a team like the Philadelphia Eagles moved to the Atlanta Falcons’ pick at No. 16, Dallas was going to be confronted by a reality it never considered. A superstar wideout was going to be in their laps.
One that the team didn’t necessarily need, with Amari Cooper signing a massive deal and Michael Gallup already showcasing that he might be an arguable No. 1 wideout in his own right. And lest anyone forget, Dak Prescott is still in line for his own mega-contract extension, which would heavily anchor most of the Cowboys’ money on offense, along with running back Ezekiel Elliott. Seriously, how could Dallas afford such an embarrassing luxury?
Did we mention Jerry was making this pick on a quarter-billion-dollar super-yacht? If there’s a place where too much luxury doesn’t exist, Jerry’s rear end was parked inside it on Thursday night.
Sometimes, you just take the best player. Especially when that player would have been a top-10 pick in most drafts that didn’t feature almost endless depth at his position. And without a doubt, many evaluators fully believed that Lamb was the best wideout in an insane bumper crop of wideouts. For good reason, too. He was prolific from Day 1 at Oklahoma — including sophomore and junior seasons that were nothing less than special, averaging 1,242 receiving yards and 12.5 touchdowns. And if that’s not enough, Lamb did it in an offense that closely resembles the three and four wideout looks that Dallas will feature heavily in 2020.
“I need some mouth-to-mouth quick,” Jones joked Thursday night. “I’m faint.”
This was Jones at his best — and maybe the best-case scenario when he’s left alone on a yacht to send in a draft pick. If he’s going to over-invest at a position, it might as well be on offense, which is basically what the Kansas City Chiefs have done around Patrick Mahomes. It doesn’t solve the pressing defensive issues that Dallas still has, but it gives the Cowboys the ability to maximize every last drop of money they’ll eventually have sunk into Prescott, Elliott and Cooper. And it may even give Dallas some flexibility down the line, should the team decide to exit Cooper’s deal following the 2021 season. If Lamb makes good on Jones’ confidence in him, Cooper’s deal may not be something the team needs to carry more than the next two years.
But now? With new head coach Mike McCarthy in the fold and the offense getting a second straight year under Kellen Moore?
“This gave us a chance to get a player that you normally don’t see that can be that kind of playmaker,” Jones said. “Put him on the other side of Cooper out there and work that with what else we’re going to do. Mike McCarthy is about to swallow his tongue in there, he’s so excited about it. I almost swallowed mine, too.”
It was an apt joke. If 2017 taught Dallas anything, it came through on Thursday. Better to swallow a tongue with a superstar luxury than to risk choking on another conservative need.
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