Top WR Prospects Part III: CeeDee Lamb
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
CeeDee Lamb is an undeniably electric playmaker. He can so thoroughly embarrass a defense that opposing fans just have to shake their heads and mutter, "He's so good."
Lamb produces burn-the-house-down plays remarkably often. While this makes for a wildly entertaining highlight reel, from a scouting perspective Lamb's tape is surprisingly hard to interpret. For example, in one of his marquee games he torched Texas with 10 catches for 171 yds and 3 TDs. Along the way he did this:
It was a truly remarkable performance.
However, of the 31 routes that Lamb ran in the game, only two of them required him to separate from a defender with route running. Two! He spent the rest of his snaps either blocking, gliding through zone coverage, or running "gadget" type routes like screens, swings from the backfield, or two-step hitches against off coverage.
That's a standard outing for Lamb. Against Texas Tech and Baylor—two of his other best games—he also ran only two(!) routes in each game that required him to separate. For whatever reason, Big 12 teams favor soft zones and off coverage, which makes it hard to scout the wide receivers playing against them (as well as for their teams to play effective defense, imho). As a result, Lamb rarely had the opportunity to showcase separation and release skills.
Of course, there are still things to glean from Lamb's tape. The soft defense just makes paying attention to context extra important. Accordingly, this article contains three sections—one for Lamb's play after the catch, one for his play against zone, and another for his play against man.
After the Catch
CeeDee Lamb is special with the ball in his hands. There's a baseline level of strength and agility that's necessary to be good at eluding tackles, and Lamb certainly has it. But to be truly excellent you also need feel—an innate sense for how to move through the flow of a defense. You can tell Lamb has that special sauce from the way he moves in the split second after he makes a catch, as he's transitioning from a receiver to a runner.
Here's another example:
The acceleration, spins, and balance are all impressive, but none of that happens without those perfect first moves he makes after the catch.
Sometimes his initial move is even to head backwards to give himself more space to work with.
As you can see, it doesn't always work (squaring defenders up instead of plunging forward for immediate yardage is always risky), but even in the above play you can see serious athleticism. However, sometimes going backward can help him create his trademark splash plays.
His risky approach is worthwhile because once he has a bit of room to maneuver his elite combination of agility, strength, and speed makes anything is possible.
Simply put: Lamb is a menace after the catch.
The biggest difference for wide receivers between playing against man and zone defense is that against man they attack players, while against zone they attack spaces. Lamb showed that as a runner he has an excellent feel for creating and using space— unsurprisingly, this carries over to the way he attacks zone defenses.
This play against Texas Tech shows how Lamb manipulates space to his advantage. His route (a dig/in) is designed to attack the triangular area between these three defenders.
To make the pattern successful Lamb drives outside as he comes off the line. This pushes the safety (far right boxed defender above) toward the sideline and expands the window that Lamb will be attacking.
It's a good illustration of how attacking zones is less about shaking a defender and more about intelligently navigating space. And Lamb is up to that challenge.
Later on he is again set up to run a route into the area between the outside linebacker and safety. Expanding the zone he's attacking remains the key to a successful route. He accomplishes this by slow-rolling his release, creating space between himself and the backpedaling safety. Once Lamb's engineered the opening, he turns on the jets and speeds underneath the safety (from the inside slot).
The above two plays look remarkably similar because Oklahoma iterates on a base play over and over again when facing zone. The play is designed to open space in the middle of the field, and puts receivers into three roles: a lid lifting role to create vertical space, a shallow role to occupy underneath defenders, and a deep crosser role that takes advantage of the open space in the middle of the field. Lamb is in the deep crosser role in the above clips—the player in that role often ends up with the ball.
Here's an angle that shows the full route combination (Lamb again runs a dig/crossing route and makes the reception).
Oklahoma tweaks the play by cycling receivers through the three roles, flipping the side of the field that the crosser comes from, and making small adjustments to the exact route in each of the roles: sometimes the underneath routes are hitches, other times drags.
Iterating on this play in lots of different ways from lots of different alignments has made Lamb extremely comfortable working spaces and angles against zone. It's a well-designed, difficult to defend formula (one that made Baker Mayfield a Heisman winner).
Baylor tried to disrupt it by hitting the Oklahoma receivers as they passed, making it harder for them to get to their spots. But Lamb is a physical player and fought through the contact.
Despite Baylor's aggressive tactics Lamb shrugs off blows and locates those same soft spots in the defense he spent all year exploiting (slot, on the hashmarks).
Lamb is so comfortable with contact that occasionally he doled out hits to defensive backs (bottom of the screen).
The same intuitive feel for attacking space that makes Lamb effective within the Sooners' zone-attack offense also makes him a lethal improviser. When things break down, Lamb has the ability to hone in on defenses' weak points.
On this play the zone collapses in on him, taking away the first read. But Lamb doesn't give up on the play, instead slipping into a window behind the defense for a back-door touchdown (top of the screen, back of the stack).
Lamb is also willing to abandon his route to work back towards the QB and bail him out of trouble. In this next clip Lamb exits the screen early on, running a route that takes him down the field. Nevertheless, he finds his way back into the play and presents a target to his scrambling QB (slot, bottom of the screen).
In the following clip he again improvises on a busted play, this time breaking off an out route that QB Jalen Hurts never even looked at. But he cuts back towards Hurts, who's under siege on the other side of the field, and is able to get open over the middle.
The play is ultimately ruled incomplete, but Lamb nevertheless demonstrates good awareness and feel for finding open space.
Lamb only needed to separate from man coverage a handful of times a game, if that. He certainly shows flashes of high-end route running ability, but there's not much to go off.
This out route is one of my favorite showcases of Lamb's separation skills. I like that he alters his pacing with a skip step at the beginning of the stem. And then, more importantly, the cut itself appears effortless, yet sudden and sharp (top of the screen).
He runs the same route again in this game but doesn't generate as much separation, perhaps because he lets up a bit as he comes out of the break.
It's frustrating that there aren't more examples of Lamb running this type of pattern against close coverage. His movement skills look high end, but I hesitate to draw too strong a conclusion from only two reps.
The same is true of his releases. This swim move he puts on this Texas corner is excellent, but it's the only time I've seen him use it (bottom of the screen).
Again, the takeaway is similar: high end potential, but just not enough evidence to have firm confidence in his release game.
And finally, it's the same story with the way Lamb attacks the deep ball. This deep route rep is one of my favorites from this year's class. I love how Lamb sees the throw go up, then takes his eyes off the ball to jockey for position with the corner, and finally re-locates the pass to make the catch.
Here Lamb demonstrates a critical skill for an effective deep threat: the ability to track the ball. Most contests over deep passes are won by the player that gets to the correct spot first. Speed and leaping ability are part of that, but even more important is simply figuring out precisely where the ball is headed. The fact that Lamb is able to read the ball as it comes out of Hurts' hand and understand its trajectory to the point where he feels comfortable taking his eyes off it is a clear demonstration of excellent tracking skills.
However, Lamb's technique isn't consistent. On this deep ball against Kansas St. he keeps his eyes on the ball while trying to locate the defender and jockey for position. But he gets caught up searching for the CB, and fails to make a play on the ball. The pass is thrown to his outside shoulder at the correct depth, and the corner is playing with inside leverage—there's nothing to stop Lamb from making this catch except his poor read.
Again, the high-end flashes are there, but I'm left wishing that he was able to put more on tape.
Bizarrely, one thing that does show up quite a lot on Lamb's tape is him falling down. Seemingly at random he will trip (top of the screen):
Slip (top of the screen):
Or face plant (bottom of the screen):
It's a strange quirk for a prospect that I would describe as possessing special movement skills. I won't draw any conclusions from this—I think it's likely just some weird randomness—but it's nevertheless amusing to watch a player that is typically so smooth fall down like he forgot how to run.
CeeDee Lamb is the closest thing to a prototypical number one wide receiver that this class has to offer. He can win with speed, he can win with quickness, and he can win with physicality. He is also truly electric after the catch, using unparalleled movement skills and instincts for finding space to produce highlight reel play after highlight reel play.
His skill set is close to ideal for the new-look Broncos offense under OC Pat Shurmur. While Shurmur is somewhat of a jack of all trades that draws on multiple systems, his offenses do share some core traits. These stem from his roots in Andy Reid's West Coast scheme, which features lots of spread concepts. Accordingly, Shurmur likes to stretch defenses horizontally and pepper receivers with short, high-percentage throws, including lots of screens. Pass catchers that are best suited for this type of system are adept at creating yards after the catch. And that's exactly where Lamb excels most.
My only hesitation with Lamb is that he infrequently faced the sort of coverage he'll encounter in the NFL. Again, this is not his fault—it's simply a product of playing in the Big 12, against teams that insist on favoring off coverage and zone. But it does limit our ability to project his game. Lamb might be an excellent route runner; he also might be an inconsistent one. His physical tools make me inclined to bet on the former, but at the end of the day that's all it is—a bet, made on very limited information.
What we can say with certainty about Lamb is that he has exceptional movement skills and a knack for creating game-changing plays after the catch. That is enough to get me excited about landing him at 15, especially given his tailor-made fit in the Shurmur offense.