When it was determined that the Cincinnati Bengals would have the ninth overall selection in the 2017 NFL draft, fans and analysts alike were curious about the potential of the pick. The Bengals still had a well-rounded overall roster and legitimate ambitions to make the playoffs and contend going forward. This pick was a unique opportunity to bolster their success with a high-value player at any of several positions. Perhaps with a blue-chip feature back, to carry the load that Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill had been sharing. Maybe a fast edge rusher for the defense to complement two ends in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Or possibly the pick could be moved, used to recoup lower picks and reinforce an offensive line depleted by free agency. For owner/president/general manager Mike Brown and company, the possibilities seemed endless.
While they were mulling this selection, Washington receiver John Ross was lighting up the track at the combine in Indianapolis.
Many prospects at the combine had speed; none were as fast as Ross. In his first sprint, he crossed the 40-yard marker in 4.22 seconds, breaking Rondel Menendez’ 4.24 record from 1999. Ross broke the record in Nike shoes, costing him the free island Adidas had offered up. Despite injuring himself during the run, Ross’ speed catapulted him up draft boards and into viral NFL media stardom. This elite speed made him a sought-after commodity for NFL scouts. Even if his size (5’11”, 190 lbs.) and established receiving skills were limiting factors.
This flash was enough to draw the attention of the Bengals front office. They worked him out pre-draft and highly considered taking him early before ultimately securing him with the ninth pick. While Ross wasn’t the biggest attention draw in the Bengals’ class (thanks to Joe Mixon), his potential still inspired optimism. If his otherworldly speed translated onto the field, the Bengals could have two elite receivers between him and A.J. Green.
Unfortunately, that won’t come to be this season.
The Bengals placed Ross on Injured Reserve (IR) earlier this week due to a recently-discovered shoulder injury. He spent substantially more time off the field than on it and failed to significantly impact a single game. Against the Texans in Week 2, he carried the ball one time, gaining twelve yards before fumbling the ball away. Those statistics – 1 carry, 12 yards, 1 fumble – are his official season totals for 2017.
On one hand, several rookie receivers have lost seasons to injury – Josh Doctson, Kevin White, and Breshad Perriman most recently. What makes Ross’ situation more intriguing – and unsettling – than those stories is the timetable of this specific injury.
Ross had numerous injuries during his career at Washington. He tore his ACL before the Huskies’ 2015 season kicked off. Ross tore his shoulder labrum once during their 2016 season, then reaggravated it in their playoff loss against Alabama. He was still nursing that injury when he tweaked his calf while running the 40-yard dash at the combine. He also strained his calf on his record-breaking combine sprint but that injury has been a non-factor for Ross.
Ross’ shoulder required surgery that largely held him out of training camp. Ross was injured again in his preseason debut against the Redskins, spraining his knee and was yet again sent to the training room. He returned briefly against Houston, but played sparingly and was deactivated shortly thereafter on account of the same injury. From there, Ross was in and out of the lineup – sometimes on account of injury, sometimes a (seemingly) healthy scratch.
Then, suddenly, it was announced that Ross would be put on IR with a shoulder injury designation. Shortly afterward, coach Marvin Lewis made an interesting comment about Ross’ situation recorded by SiriusXM NFL’s Ross Tucker.
Asked Marvin Lewis about rookie WR John Ross shoulder on @SiriusXMNFL & he said it's the "other shoulder" and that Ross had been concealing injury hoping to play before finally "coming clean" with team.
— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) December 7, 2017
Ross appears to have withheld information regarding his new shoulder injury from the team, instead vouching to play through it while downplaying its severity. Based on the circumstances, there is not much information about this specific injury at this time but it was a serious enough injury to place Ross on IR.
Now, there are two sides to this situation, and neither is necessarily wrong. Lewis and the staff should be upset when one of their players – especially one as valuable to the organization as Ross – isn’t entirely truthful about their health. They made a large investment in him (a first-round pick and a four-year, $17.1 million a contract). Their confidence in that investment is based on trust, and Ross being dishonest with them shakes that foundation. More pragmatically, it’s based on Ross’ long-term health – which he could’ve directly compromised by neglecting his short-term health.
On Ross’ hand, the receiver has plenty to gain from trying to play through injury if he believes he can. He has entered the league with the undesirable ‘injury-prone’ tag – an incredibly difficult label to remove once it’s been applied. It sticks in the minds of fans and front office personnel, as well as the players who bear it themselves. Why wouldn’t Ross try to defeat the narrative early, rather than contribute and let it snowball out of his control?
This seems more like a miscommunication, in words and in action, than a malicious attempt at dishonesty. Ross wanted to continue playing, but didn’t allow Lewis full access and put them both in a bad situation. Perhaps Lewis could’ve acted differently, but there’s little reason for any party involved to publicly discuss the situation further. Ross will learn from the experience and both parties are quietly moving forward.
With any luck, Ross’ career on the field can get back on track in a similar fashion. In a quiet year for rookie receivers in general (Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster excluded), Ross’ absence has escaped widespread scrutiny. If he takes his time in rehab and looks strong in his 2018 return, no one will remember this struggle.
Hopefully that will be the start of a good, long career for Ross in Cincinnati.