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Anatomy of a steal: How CeeDee Lamb was gifted to the Cowboys in the NFL draft first round

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Cowboys score through the ineptness of others.

NFL: NFL Draft
CeeDee getting the call.
Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Did you go to bed kinda giddy about the Dallas Cowboys taking CeeDee Lamb with pick 17 of the NFL Draft? Did you check when you woke up to make sure you didn’t just dream it? The general reaction to his selection has been overwhelmingly positive. And it should. The Cowboys had him as the sixth-highest ranked player overall in the draft. They are hardly alone, as many outside draftniks saw him much the same, with most having him as WR1. It really shouldn’t have happened. So just how did this come about?

The Cowboys sticking to their own board when no one really believed such a defense-hungry team would take a wide receiver played a huge part, but it could never have happened if the sixteen teams ahead of them had not made the decisions they did. Some were good, even great picks. Others, well, not so much. Here is a look at all of the preceding selections and how they all combined to help land one of the most exciting picks for Dallas since perhaps Dez Bryant.

First, lets set the table with a look at the overall talent distribution at the top of the draft. These are the first 65 names, ranked in order, from our own Connor Livesay’s draft guide.

Now, there are different views of things depending on where you look. But Connor is hardly the only one to have Lamb ranked so highly.

So both the Cowboys and Bob Sturm saw it the same way. I’ll take that as validation that Connor knows what he is talking about.

Now, here’s how the draft played out, and right into the Cowboys’ hands.

Cowboys needs and desires

Everyone, and I mean everyone, knew they were looking for defense. The big targets in the minds of most prognosticators were CB C.J. Henderson and EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson. S Xavier McKinney, CB A.J. Terrell, and LB Kenneth Murray were also mentioned frequently.

Pick 1: Cincinnati Bengals take QB Joe Burrow, LSU

Pretty much a no-brainer. Burrow may not have been the very top talent from a general view, but he was QB1 for most, and the Bengals really needed one of those.

Pick 2: Washington takes DE Chase Young, Ohio State

It is hard to get used to our beloved rivals making a smart decision. They snagged the consensus best player in the draft, at a position of need, and now we get to see him twice a year. Thanks for nothing.

We can only take comfort in Washington having six more rounds to screw up. This one was basically too foolproof even for Dan Snyder.

Pick 3: Detroit Lions take CB Jeff Odukah, Ohio State

The Lions went with their biggest perceived need to take a consensus top 5 player at one of the money positions. Hard to fault them for that.

So far, things had played out pretty much according to expectations. Many had thought that the first round would see a lot of trades with the unusual circumstances forced by the pandemic. Ultimately, there would be only one of those before the Cowboys went on the clock, and that was just a position swap between Tampa Bay and the 49ers, probably to keep another team from poaching someone the Bucs liked.

And then with the next pick, the first questionable decision rears its head.

Pick 4: New York Giants take OL Andrew Thomas, Georgia

It’s definitely the right idea to get help for Saquon Barkley, who the Giants center their offense around, and more protection for Daniel Jones as they seek to grow him into a franchise QB, but almost all observers felt that Thomas was not the best O lineman available. Connor had him fourth among all OL, and third of the tackles. It is not a horrible pick. But making a bit of a reach means very attractive options would be there for other teams before Dallas got on the clock, and more OL meant fewer WRs taken. That was rather important.

Pick 5: Miami Dolphins take QB Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

Everyone knew the Dolphins were going for a QB, and they got him without having to trade up, so great for them. What mattered for the Cowboys was this was another QB taken that pushed other players down to them.

Pick 6: Los Angeles Chargers take QB Justin Herbert, Oregon

Same thing for Herbert and the Chargers. He was seen as a bit of a reach, but when you don’t have a starting QB anymore, you have to take some risks.

Pick 7: Carolina Panthers take DL Derrick Brown, Auburn

Prior to the draft, having Brown slide to Dallas was a dream scenario for some. But the Panthers quickly snuffed that out to take a player that is seen as perhaps the best interior DL drafted since Aaron Donald.

Pick 8: Arizona Cardinals take LB Isaiah Simmons, Clemson

Simmons is an interesting player, because a lot of people aren’t sure exactly what his real role will be in the NFL. He is a freakishly good athlete, but it is going to take proper use to make him a star. A definite top 10 pick for most, he certainly didn’t hurt the Cowboys by going here.

Pick 9: Jacksonville Jaguars take CB C.J. Henderson, Florida

This was the first selection that really felt a bit painful. The odds of him making it to 17 were always a bit iffy, but there was still hope. However, there is an argument to be made that the Jags over-drafted him a bit. That is always a good thing for a team wanting talent to get pushed down to them.

Pick 10: Cleveland Browns take OL Jedrick Wills, Jr, Alabama

Another offensive lineman taken ahead of the Cowboys was all good. The Browns were helped by the Giants here as well.

Pick 11: New York Jets take OL Mekhi Becton, Louisville

More good news for the Cowboys. Chaisson is still available at this point, and things are getting close with only five more picks before Dallas gets a crack at things.

Pick 12: Las Vegas Raiders take WR Henry Ruggs III, Alabama

This one was a bit of a surprise, because Ruggs was not only not the best wide receiver available, according to many, he wasn’t even the best one from ‘Bama. Still, it kept the hopes for Chaisson to Dallas alive, and was thought to be the start of a run on WRs that would continue moving things in the right direction.

Pick 13: Tampa Bay Buccaneers take OL Tristan Wirfs, Iowa

The first selection of the Tom Brady era in Tampa Bay was to protect the new and not exactly agile quarterback. Good value and definitely filled a need.

So far, things have gone well for the Cowboys, especially with three QBs and four OL taken. Those were the kinds of runs that the team needed to get a shot at Chaisson.

It is worth mentioning that, while Chaisson was widely seen as the guy Dallas hoped to get, the enthusiasm among the fanbase for him was not overwhelming. He was good, and the right value for 17. He just wasn’t, you know, an automatic star.

Pick 14: San Francisco 49ers take DL Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina

Suddenly, things got very interesting, because the Niners were believed to be in the market for a wide receiver - and the two best in the draft, CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy, were both still available. With Chaisson also still out there, the Cowboys not only had what was widely perceived to be their main target tantalizingly close, but now #Team40Burger began to stir.

And sitting just in front of the Cowboys at 16, the Atlanta Falcons were also thought to be considering Chaisson. What would Jerry Jones and his staff do? The tension in Cowboys Nation was palpable.

There have been reports that the Philadelphia Eagles were looking into a trade to get ahead of the Cowboys because they really, really wanted to get Lamb, but the price was too steep for their liking. You have to wonder if they want a do-over.

Pick 15: Denver Broncos take WR Jerry Jeudy, Alabama

This amped things up even more for Cowboys fans. While Jeudy was also a top 10 talent on many boards, he was also seen by most as WR2 behind Lamb. #Team40Burger stood up and stretched to its full height.

Now Atlanta was on the clock. Would they snatch Chaisson? And did that even matter anymore if Lamb was still available?

Pick 16: Atlanta Falcons take CB A.J. Terrell, Clemson

The Falcons have serious issues in their secondary, and all indications are that they made a bit of a reach. Terrell was seen as a trade back option, or even the pick at 17 if things were washed for the Cowboys. The Falcons, instead of breaking our hearts, injected massive excitement.

The Cowboys had their expected target AND a completely unforeseen consensus top 10 offensive weapon available. But the big question remained: Would they go with need, or go with the best player still out there? In recent years, the team had apparently leaned towards filling that need. Now, Jason Garrett and Rod Marinelli are no longer with the Cowboys, and Mike McCarthy has spoken repeatedly about the desire to go after the most talented player whenever possible. Jerry Jones revealed that trade backs were on the table for Dallas as well. With so much need on defense, it might have been tempting.

#Team40Burger began to howl as the clock ran.

Pick 17: Dallas Cowboys pick WR CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma

A mighty roar of triumph from #Team40Burger accompanied the announcement. After several years of either grudging acceptance or outright disapproval, we had a player that created real adrenaline.

Only time will tell, of course, but this has the potential to be a true home run of a pick. Matched up with Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Ezekiel Elliott, Blake Jarwin, and Tony Pollard, Lamb could elevate the Cowboys to truly elite levels among NFL offenses. Great credit is due to the Dallas staff for sticking with their board and making this decision.

And it all could never have happened if sixteen teams had not all felt they needed to go in a different direction. A few questionable decisions along the way turned into draft gold for the Cowboys.