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NFL draft: Can anyone catch Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb?

Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb makes a spectacular catch but can't stay in bounds against Bruins cornerback Nate Meadors in the third quarter of their game.
Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb makes a spectacular catch but can’t stay in bounds against UCLA cornerback Nate Meadors in the third quarter of their game.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.

In a potentially historic class of receiver prospects, it doesn’t hurt to have one skill that stands above the rest.

Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb might be the most complete receiver in this draft anyway, with speed and strength to overwhelm defenders, poise and instincts to outwit them, and three years of production in one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. There’s a reason he’s elicited comparisons to the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams, two perennial NFL Pro Bowl selections at the position.

But to see what truly separates Lamb, just give him the ball. Give him a sliver of space. And let him go.

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“I enjoy making people miss and making the most of every opportunity I get,” Lamb said at the NFL scouting combine in February.

That much should be clear after three seasons of shredding Big 12 defenses for 3,292 career yards and 32 touchdowns — a statistical run that ranks among the best three-season performances for a receiver in college football history.

It hasn’t hurt having caught passes from quarterbacks who became the No. 1 pick of the draft in consecutive seasons — Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. And Jalen Hurts was no slouch last season, either.

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But for Lamb, his best work has come in the moments after the pass is reeled in, when instincts create open field.

According to Pro Football Focus, nearly half of Lamb’s career yards receiving — 1,520 of 3,292 — came after the catch. As a junior, he broke 26 tackles in 62 catches, contributing to an eye-popping per-reception rate of 11 yards after catch. That puts him in a class alone among draft-eligible wideouts.

It’s not as if that damage was done primarily on simple screen passes, either. Lamb shredded Big 12 defenses at every level. The average depth of his targets last season was more than 13 yards. His yards-per-catch mark (21.4) led the nation among wideouts with more than 30 receptions.

In the open field, he proved nearly impossible to bring down. Against Texas in October, Lamb caught a flea-flicker pass and found himself surrounded by five defenders. No matter. He cut inside, then out, slipped one tackle and then another before finding a new gear to speed past everyone for a 51-yard score.

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That trail of defenders left in his wake was hardly unique. Against Texas Tech in late September, Lamb caught a pass over the middle, shook a defender, and sprinted 50 more yards for his first of three scores. Against Iowa State in November, he took a five-yard curl route to the house, slipping tackles and slicing through the Cyclones defense for 58 extra yards.

Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah could be one of those rare cornerbacks to be selected at the top of the NFL draft.

Whether that translates as seamlessly at the NFL level remains to be seen. Some scouts have nit-picked his ability to separate, a skill Lamb acknowledged needs work.

“Once I get that down,” Lamb said, “I feel like I’ll be the receiver that I want to be.”

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Still, in a historically deep class of receivers, the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top receiver might be good enough to become the first receiver selected in the top 10 in three years. Between Lamb and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, it’s likely at least one will make the top dozen.

“This class this year is honestly unbelievable in my eyes,” Lamb said. “You can’t really go wrong with anybody you draft in the first, second, third or fourth rounds. Doesn’t matter.”


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