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NFL Draft

Potential 2020 Late Bloomer: Bengals WR John Ross

  • The Draft Network
  • June 28, 2020
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There aren’t many things more frustrating than a highly drafted player who hasn’t lived up to his potential. Whether it’s due to injuries, scheme, or a plethora of different factors, a good amount of first-round selections end up as disappointments relative to their draft status. Usually, this distinction can be found within the first three years of a career, as that seems to be the typical length before words like “bust” start making their way to the forefront.  

Sometimes, however, players take longer than that to break out, which categorizes them as, what I like to call, late bloomers. Perfect examples of late bloomers are players like DeVante Parker and Arik Armstead, two prospects that took a long time to develop but showed last season why they were worth the patience and slow approach.

For this exercise, the late bloomers I’m trying to unearth need to fit the following criteria...

  • First-round draft pick
  • Still on his rookie contract
  • Fifth-year option was declined

The first two installments in this saga featured Tennessee Titans wideout Corey Davis and Indianapolis Colts safety Malik Hooker. This week, I delve into Cincinnati Bengals speedster John Ross, analyzing whether or not he can shed the disappointing label currently attached to his name.

Where Ross currently stacks up

Just like when he came out of college, Ross is somewhat of an enigma. Best known for his NFL-record 4.22 40-yard dash, he’s yet to develop into a consistent receiver after three seasons, something that should be considered a disappointment given his extremely high draft status. Taken ninth overall back in 2017, Ross did take a bit of a jump in his third pro season, but that doesn’t mean much given his redshirt rookie season and his downright poor sophomore campaign.  

Now saddled with a rookie quarterback and a healthy A.J. Green to have to battle for targets, Ross needs to be treated as a boom or bust WR3-type with complimentary upside heading into 2020. He’s flashy and superb in the vertical sections of the field, but he simply can’t be counted on yet as a full-fledged starter due to his injury issues and overall inconsistencies as a pass-catcher.

Why you should be optimistic

It’s a speed-driven league, and literally, no one has more of it in their arsenal than Ross.  

A pure-burner who can eliminate cushion with the snap of a finger, Ross finally put his deep-threat ability on display in 2019, showcasing off a sparkly 18.1 yards per catch (compared to only 10.0 in 2018) and found himself a niche-role in first-year head coach Zac Taylor’s aerial attack.

Understanding what makes Ross tick, Taylor did wonders for the pass-catcher and his overall development, allowing him to push the pace with the ninth-most air yards per target (14.9) in the entire league. Unlike Marvin Lewis, who tried Ross as a horizontal weapon, perimeter decoy, and even at cornerback, Taylor let Ross do what he did best at Washington, which was let him use his athleticism to his advantage.

On pace for 1,000 yards before he got hurt, Ross finished the 2019 season third amongst wideouts in YAC per Reception (7.4) and second in average YAC above the expectation (2.6). This was a staggering jump from his sophomore campaign, where he garnered lowly marks of 3.1 and -0.1 in the same respective categories.

Yes, he only played eight games and a lot of his production was accumulated through garbage time, but Ross was able to showcase the type of talent that got him drafted in the top 10 even with bum QB play and a horrid offensive line. That’s a major win.

Ultimately, with his promising 2019 development, an upgrade at passer in Joe Burrow, and an improved O-line that will allow Ross’ routes more time to develop, the prospects of a breakout season are VERY much alive heading into 2020.

Why you should worry

It seems that for every positive in Ross’ back pocket, he has an equal and opposite negative trait. A frustrating conundrum, Ross hasn’t yet realized his full potential because of two things: injuries and consistency.

Unable to stay healthy for a full season since he was at Washington, Ross’ small size and injury-prone frame have led to an abundance of health issues such as major tears, surgeries, and sprains.

Since college, Ross’ injury list is as followed:

  • September 2014, Meniscus tear (knee)
  • April 2015, Meniscus (knee)
  • April 2015, Torn ACL (knee)
  • September 2016, Labrum tear (shoulder) 
  • December 2017, Labrum tear (shoulder) 
  • September 2018, Groin strain
  • September 2019, AC Joint Strain (shoulder)

After missing 12, 3, and 8 games his first three seasons respectively, this has been—and will continue to be—a major concern. Simply put, Ross’ inability to suit up consistently has served as a huge detriment throughout his early NFL career.

Speaking of consistency, Ross has also failed to perform in a dependable fashion, often mislocating deep balls, dropping passes, and limiting himself to a vertical-only role. After having four kick return touchdowns in college, Ross also hasn’t been used in this regard in the pros, while additionally failing to use his mind-bending speed in other creative ways like the backfield or on bubble screens.

Of course, it makes sense to stick with a player where he’s comfortable (in Ross’ case that means running deep patterns), but this one-dimensional style of play considerably lowers his overall upside. A deserving top-10 pick needs to showcase his abilities in a multitude of facets, and even if Ross’ calling card is as an explosive, gadget player, he needs to prove his worth in other areas like on kick returns or the underneath game.

Even more concerning, none of these problems even feature the incredible wideout depth that the Bengals employ. Snaps aren’t going to come easy in 2020, as Tyler Boyd hogs a majority of reps and Green comes back from his injury. This seems to suggest that Ross will slide into the third spot on the 2020 target totem pole, although even that is far from set in stone.

Burrow is used to savvier, more physical wideouts who excel at the catch-point. Ross is anything but that, and new second-round pick Tee Higgins fits that definition to a tee. If Ross isn’t careful, this means he might not only get jumped by Higgins but maybe even Auden Tate or Alex Erickson—a more dependable option who offers special teams upside.

It’s good to have options, especially for a team with a young, developing passer. For an underperforming fourth-year wideout drafted in an old regime, however, more competition doesn't exactly bode well for Ross and a breakout season.

Likely Outcome

A typical boom or bust case, projecting Ross’ season is extremely difficult since we don’t know how healthy he’ll be nor how he’ll gel with a new QB in Burrow. I’d expect a slight step back from his 2019 per-game production (especially since Green is back), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a stat line around 50-880-7 with a couple of games missed due to injury.

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