What sets Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb and Vikings’ Justin Jefferson apart? NFL evaluators tell us

  • Covered NFL since 1997, Cowboys since 2003
  • Previously covered Bengals and Dolphins
  • Lives in Dallas area with his wife and two children

    Covered the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News. She joined ESPN in 2017.

Five receivers were selected in the first round of the 2020 draft, and after roughly a season and a half of results, it is clear CeeDee Lamb of the Dallas Cowboys and Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings have separated themselves from the bunch.

Jefferson, the 22nd overall pick, has 129 catches for 1,942 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Lamb, the 17th pick, has 107 receptions for 1,432 yards and nine touchdowns.

And they are matching up well with the best in their franchise’s history, too.

Only Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Bob Hayes reached 1,000 receiving yards in fewer games (13) than Lamb (17) in team history. The 22-year-old Lamb reached 100 receptions in 22 games, tying former running back Herschel Walker for the fewest games to get there in team history. With a touchdown Sunday against the Vikings (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), Lamb would be second fastest in team history (23 games) to reach double-digit receiving touchdowns behind only former receiver Dez Bryant (17 games).

For Jefferson, also 22, he broke Vikings rookie records held by Hall of Famer Randy Moss in receptions (88) and yards (1,400) last season. Through their first 22 games, Jefferson has more yards and catches than Moss had, although the Hall of Famer had 21 touchdown receptions. Jefferson has a streak of nine straight games with at least five catches, which is the second-longest current streak in the NFL.

This season, Jefferson is on pace for 109 catches and 1,445 yards, while Lamb’s pace is for 88 catches and 1,325 yards.

The fan bases of the Las Vegas Raiders (Henry Ruggs III, No. 12 overall), Denver Broncos (Jerry Jeudy, No. 15 overall) and Philadelphia Eagles (Jalen Reagor, No. 21 overall) have to wonder why their teams passed on Lamb and Jefferson. The San Francisco 49ers are saved from the scrutiny because they selected Brandon Aiyuk after Lamb and Jefferson were gone.

“There was never a question whether CeeDee was a No. 1,” an assistant general manager said. “He’s definitely a 1. Maybe Jefferson slipped because people didn’t see him as a 1 because he played so much slot at LSU but hindsight being 20/20, I think you need to see him as a 1.”

On Sunday, Lamb and Jefferson — or Jefferson and Lamb — will meet for the second time in two seasons at U.S. Bank Stadium with both teams coming off their bye and looking to continue winning streaks.

Last November, Lamb made a touchdown catch for the ages, twisting and turning for an Andy Dalton pass in the Cowboys’ 31-28 win, but Jefferson had his highlight with a 39-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kirk Cousins and finished with 86 yards on three receptions.

Through six games this season, Jefferson has 41 receptions for 542 yards, which rank inside the top 10. Lamb has 33 catches for 497 yards, but he is coming off a 149-yard effort against the New England Patriots with two touchdowns, including the game-winner from 35 yards in overtime.

NFL Nation reporters Courtney Cronin and Todd Archer talked to several NFL personnel executives to discuss the traits that make Lamb and Jefferson so special.

Run after the catch

What the numbers say: Lamb has nine catches of 20 yards or more this season, while Jefferson has eight. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Lamb has 210 yards after the catch (ranking 16th in the NFL) and averages 6.36 YAC, which ranks seventh among wide receivers with at least 20 catches. Jefferson checks in at No. 20 with 196 yards and averages 4.78 YAC (21st). If both the 2020 and 2021 seasons are included, Jefferson ranks No. 4 in YAC with 641.

Lamb ranks No. 5 among all wide receivers this season with 70 yards after first contact, and Jefferson ranks seventh with 66.

Scouting report on Lamb

“That’s where he’s unique and separates himself from a lot of guys with his elusiveness after the catch and his strength. There is a unique separation burst he has to get away from a defender. He’s got that stop-start body control.” — NFC player personnel director

“It’s like, ‘Is he really that fast?’ And then he would take one to the house. You really couldn’t judge CeeDee’s playmaking ability and speed off his tape. I saw him live and he didn’t really look like he was running that fast until he just ran by somebody. There’s only certain receivers I’ve ever seen it in live. I saw it with DJ Moore, Laviska Shenault. CeeDee and D.J.’s 40 times weren’t that slow, it just looked like they weren’t moving that fast.

“It’s just weird because some guys have that ability to be looking smooth and not really trying and then you see somebody trying to chase them and they can’t catch them.” — NFC area scout

“CeeDee’s an excellent route runner, but he’s probably better with the ball in his hands than Jefferson. Once he gets his hands on the ball, especially in college, he was a threat to take it the distance, even if it was a hitch or a slant. He’s probably better on those 45 degree angle cuts, like posts and speed outs and routes that don’t require him to come to a stop.” — NFL assistant general manager

Scouting report on Jefferson

“He’ll catch the ball, and he’s looking to make a play. His [run after catch] was really, really good. I always say he had one of the top wiggles in that draft, meaning he can make that first guy miss and he could take it to the house at any given time. You saw his playmaking ability probably a little bit more and you saw it jump out at you on tape.” — NFC area scout

“He’s not as creative after the catch. He’s good but he gets more with what he gets through determination rather than elusiveness than that stop-start or spatial awareness.” — NFC player personnel director

Hands

What the numbers say: Drops can be a subjective stat. What one assistant coach might call a drop, another wouldn’t. ESPN Stats & Information has Lamb with six drops in 2020 and two so far this season, while Jefferson had three drops as a rookie and three this season. Over the past two seasons, Jefferson has two fumbles and Lamb has one.

Neither receiver, however, is perceived to have “bad hands.”

Scouting report on Jefferson

“Really consistent catcher. Just a steady hand guy. He can still make the eye-opening catch, but he’s going to make the more consistent catch, not just the acrobatic catches. He’s probably going to make more of the tougher catches.” — NFC player personnel director

“He’s a ball-catcher, not a body-catcher. There’s probably not much difference to decipher between either one of them.” — NFL assistant general manager

Scouting report on Lamb

“His hands are very good but there’s an occasional drop that you don’t expect with his level of hands. He’s a guy that tracks the ball over his shoulder better maybe than the ones where he’s coming back to the ball. He’ll make more ‘wow’ catches because of his body control in the air. CeeDee is great in traffic.” — NFC player personnel director

“Comparing the two, I would probably say CeeDee has better hands but it’s not because Justin’s hands aren’t good. Justin had really good hands, probably the best hands out of the trio on his team (at LSU). Coming out, I probably liked (Jefferson’s) hands better than Ja’Marr [Chase] or Terence [Marshall]. In that draft, I liked Justin’s hands just under CeeDee’s. CeeDee made the catches like, ‘Wow, how did he pull that in?'” — NFC area scout

Route running

What the numbers say: It is difficult to create separation in a league filled with terrific athletes, but Lamb and Jefferson have that ability. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Lamb averages 2.86 yards from the neatest defender at the time of pass arrival, and Jefferson averages 2.79 yards.

According to Next Gen Stats, Lamb has had a max speed of 20.72 mph (Week 5 against the New York Giants), and Jefferson has had a max speed of 20.15 mph (Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns).

Scouting report on Lamb

“His quickness and agility off the line of scrimmage, the ability to set guys up at the top of his routes, that’s what separates him and then his run after the catch.” — NFC player personnel director

“He is so smooth with his down the field, stretching the field ability. It doesn’t look like he’s trying, but he gets open. He’s just one of those guys; he’s not breaking a sweat trying to run a route. Some people probably get mad at him because it doesn’t look like he’s trying but he’s just a smooth route runner. Some guys are just like that.” — NFC area scout

Scouting report on Jefferson

“He was very smooth. You could tell he was a top-notch athlete the way he would come in and out of his breaks; it was easy to drop his weight. He could do all the things that the top receivers before him were doing and the ones that are coming out this year are doing … He was beating the people they’re putting on him. Even if it’s the No. 2 or No. 3, he’s still going to win, which is a good thing because some people don’t play up to their opponent’s ability. Some people drop down, so if I see I’m getting backups, I don’t have to go as hard. That wasn’t Justin.” — NFC area scout

“He’s a savvy route runner, explosive. He knows how to step on people’s toes and then he’s fearless in going to catch the football.” — NFC player personnel director

“He’s exceptional on transitional stop route plays. It’s really more like 60 mph to 0. He comes to a stop better than pretty much anybody in the league. He’s going 60 and he can shut it down and come back to the ball. He’s exceptional there.” — NFL assistant general manager

What Lamb and Jefferson say about each other

There is a mutual admiration between the receivers and both want to be considered the best in the 2020 draft class.

“I’m sure [Jefferson] wants to be the best for sure and likewise,” Lamb said. “I definitely want to be considered the best in the class. I feel like that’s what kind of keeps us going. The production you see throughout, week in, week out, is off the love of the game and how much we’re trying to compete and make a name for ourselves.”

Lamb said he and Jefferson will talk every now and then on Instagram. Lamb called Jefferson a “great player.”

“I watch him just about as much as I watch any other receiver,” Lamb said. “I like his game. I like the way he moves with the ball after the catch, his routes. He’s a very phenomenal receiver.”

The last draft class to boast as many stars at the wide receiver position as the 2020 group — which had 13 receivers go in the first two rounds — came via the likes of Jarvis Landry, Mike Evans, Davante Adams, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks in 2014. Lamb and Jefferson continue to carry the torch for their group which hopes to make its mark among the greatest receiver classes ever.

“We’re both doing some tremendous things,” Jefferson said. “We’re both some playmakers and we’re both doing some big things for our teams. We just have to keep rolling, I’m excited to see him progress and do big things. It’s going to be a good matchup going up against him.”

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