A Wolf in Lamb’s Clothing: Pump the Brakes on CeeDee (Fantasy Football)

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A wise fantasy football legend once said that “you can’t win your league in the first five rounds, but you can definitely lose it”. I have no idea who that person was, but they were spot on. Drafting a player like Christian McCaffrey obviously presents a serious advantage, but picking a player that completely busts presents a more impactful disadvantage in most cases. If you don’t agree, just ask someone who drafted CJ Spiller or Eddie Lacy. If you don’t know that reference, consider yourself lucky. 

The list of potential busts for 2021 is a bit longer than the past two seasons, especially at the wide receiver position. Justin Jefferson and AJ Brown seem to have vaulted second and third-year receivers into higher tiers by the minute, so it’s reasonable to expect some early-round receivers to disappoint us since we’re investing significant draft capital in quite a few of them. Not every player makes a ridiculously impressive second-year leap. CeeDee Lamb is an excellent player. 

….That doesn’t guarantee fantasy excellence at his ADP. 

What’s the Expectation for CeeDee Lamb

The key to examining ADP is understanding what you’re hoping to see from a player that you pick. It’s a fair assumption to say that the expectation is to have a draft pick finish the season higher than the spot you drafted them in. If you pick a receiver in the top ten, you should expect a top ten finish. This is the bare minimum. If you’re hoping to win a league, you need to return a lot more value than you put into your draft over the course of the season. That can come in the form of late-round sleepers, or solid draft picks early that end up out-producing their projections. Since Lamb’s ADP is WR18, it’s reasonable to expect a WR17 finish as a floor, and a top ten finish as the ceiling. 

Lamb saw 111 targets in 2020. The only player that finished in the top-17 with fewer targets than the Dallas rookie was Adam Thielen, who ascended into the top ten on the back of 14 receiving touchdowns. If Lamb is going to finish in that group this year and return value on his current ADP, then he’s going to need to see increased target volume, or a much higher touchdown count. 

The Outlook in Dallas 

Projecting the target volume in Dallas is crucial for determining their best value at the receiver position. The good news is that Lamb has a great shot to see increased target volume in 2021. The bad news is that there are a lot of moving parts in the offense, and a lot of good pass catchers on the field at all times. People use the ‘too many mouths to feed’ cliche more than they need to, but in Dallas’s case, it’s accurate. 

Dak Prescott was on a blistering pace to start 2020, but a five-game sample size isn’t large enough for us to project out his passing attempts. If we did, he would have shattered the passing attempt record (727) held by Matthew Stafford. That’s in the realm of possibilities for this team next season, but it’s not something we should lay out as an expectation. The Cowboys actually had more total passing attempts in 2020 with Prescott and Dalton than they did with just Prescott in 2019, but the entire situation was unique. 

Prescott’s passing attempts were rising every season he was under center, so predicting roughly 600-625 passing attempts for a 16 game season seems fair. He finished 2019 with 597. Since we have a wonderful 17th game this year, my personal projections put Dak around 640 attempts in total. 

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If we project a similar target share for CeeDee in 2021, then he comes in around 7.9 targets per game. Based on a 16 game season, this would put him at 126 targets for the year. Only four players in the top-17 at the position had fewer targets than this. Those four guys averaged 10.5 touchdowns and just over 1,000 receiving yards. Only Mike Evans and the aforementioned Thielen finished in the top ten with that few of targets, and they caught 13 and 14 touchdowns, respectively. If Lamb is to return value on his ADP, he’ll have to either double his 2020 touchdown total or significantly eclipse the 1,000 yard receiving yardage mark with an increased reception total. The chances that he finishes in the top ten by way of 12+ touchdowns or elite reception totals are pretty slim without an injury to Cooper or Gallup.  

Is He Batman, Robin…. Or Alfred?

The most significant hesitation with Lamb should be the receiving corps in Dallas. Amari Cooper and Lamb are both alpha receivers that would be the top dog in just about any offense. The problem is determining which one of them is the top dog in their current offense. It’s pretty rare that we see a Thielen/Diggs scenario like we did in Minnesota, and that’s what would need to happen for Lamb to significantly outplay his ADP. 

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Per PFF, we see an average of 4.3 instances per year where two receivers from the same team both finish as top-24 fantasy receivers. Last season we saw Seattle and Minnesota produce teammates that both finished in the top-15 as well. This means that Lamb and Cooper definitely have a chance to accomplish this, but it limits the ceilings of both of them. We saw Tyler Lockett fall off once DK Metcalf ascended, and the torch has been passed from Adam Thielen to Justin Jefferson in Minnesota. Amari Cooper is only 27, and Michael Gallup is shockingly underrated. If Lamb is to become the top dog, something genuinely unexpected is going to need to happen. Paying a WR18 price tag to bank on something like that isn’t the ideal scenario for a draft strategy. His ceiling is capped when viewing it through any standard lens we have available. 

With Dak Prescott returning and the reliance on Ezekiel Elliott as a high-end running back, the touchdown totals for both Lamb and Cooper are going to be a difficult metric to project. Since Dak is considered a high-end QB1 and Zeke is a consensus top-5 pick at the running back position, someone is likely to disappoint. As a matter of fact, there have only been nine instances in the past ten years where a team produced a QB1, an RB1, and two top 24 receivers. That amounts to just under 3% of the time. I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that Dak and Zeke are the safest bets in Dallas since they will see solidified goal line volume, so that leaves either Cooper or Lamb as potential disappointment candidates. It’s basic probability at this point. 

We also have the presence of Michael Gallup. I covered his potential in detail a few weeks ago, and I still consider him the best value in Dallas, by a long shot. Gallup only trailed Lamb in the target department by four targets. He also saw 19 targets in the red zone, compared to Lamb’s 13. Amari Cooper also saw 15, which means that Lamb was the third option in the red zone passing game last season, and the fourth red-zone option overall. When you combine this with Dak’s tendencies to run at the goal line, then you sprinkle in the $90 million dollar bell cow in the backfield…. Lamb’s potential to explode in the touchdown department looks pretty grim. His touchdown potential is capped, his target and reception projections are capped, and he’s not even the top deep threat on his team. He’s a freakishly talented player, but his ADP is too high.

In other words, drafting Lamb may turn out to be a….. baaaaaaad decision.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. 

High Floor, Minimal Upside

Lamb’s potential to finish as a top 17 wide receiver is clear, but the likelihood that he climbs into the top 10, or even the top 15, isn’t great. If you want someone that you can deploy as a weekly WR2 with a decent floor, then Lamb should work out just fine. If you want someone that will smash their ADP in the way that Calvin Ridley, Chris Godwin, Justin Jefferson, or AJ Brown did early in their career – you should consider looking elsewhere. Given the situation in Dallas and the excellent options all over the field, your primary target in the Big D should be Dak Prescott or Michael Gallup.

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