When the Cincinnati Bengals selected John Ross with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, some people questioned if the former Washington star was deserving of such a high selection. It’s not that he’s a one-trick pony, but many were concerned by his lack of size and strength and questioned if he could be more than a deep threat.
That also happened with Darrius Heyward-Bey back in 2009, when he was the first wide receiver selected in a loaded class that featured Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin and Hakeem Nicks. The Raiders were enamored with Heyward-Bay’s legendary speed and were more than willing to use the seventh overall pick to get him.
For the Maryland standout, those fears came true, and after four disappointing years in Oakland he was released and now plays for the Steelers where he’s fit in nicely as their designated home run guy.
Heyward-Bey never honed his skills and always looked raw on the field. Although he’s managed to have a lasting career in the NFL, it’s fair to say the number seven pick was a little too high for him, as almost every draft analyst believed at the time. Typical Raiders.
Ross was even faster than Heyward-Bey at the NFL Combine, posting a record-breaking 4.22 mark - 0.08 seconds faster than the current Steelers receiver. Not only that, he also had a much more impressive college career. Where Heyward-Bey had a breakout sophomore season with 786 yards and three scores in 51 receptions - plus 110 yards and one touchdown in just five carries on the ground, Ross had a monster campaign last year, with 81 catches for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns. While the former Raider’s production dipped in his last season in school, the newest Bengal stepped up his game to a new level, making himself a coveted prospect just before the draft. And while the Raiders had the pick of their choice with every wide receiver still available, the Bengals’ hand was kind of force with two other pass catchers already taken by the time they were on the clock. Though, Ross was reportedly the Bengals’ top receiver option all along. Ross probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer than he did if the Bengals passed him by.
Despite his 5’11” size, Ross is more than a super athlete. He’s got the route-running abilities and the vision to become a complete playmaker for the Bengals offense, while Heyward-Bey could never be that. At 6’2” and with that speed, only Heyward-Bey could stop Heyward-Bey and that is what eventually happened. Ross on the other hand is a complete receiver who happens to be the fastest football player in the NFL.
All from one game. No 'Go routes' and still dominates. John Ross. pic.twitter.com/e1h09LQQkJ— Joe Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) April 28, 2017
The comparison between Ross and Heyward-Bey hasn’t been made often, but after Ross was selected so high in a draft loaded with talent on defense, it made some worry that the Bengals reached for him, just like the Raiders did for Heyward-Bey in 2009. Ross projects to be superior in almost every aspect of the craft: feet, route-running, hands, and even if smaller, he plays bigger than Heyward-Bey. Even his biggest red flag is injury related as opposed to having flaws in his game.
Something else to consider is the fact that the Raiders were a very dysfunctional franchise that still started JaMarcus Russell at quarterback, and the Bengals are the complete opposite, with a very stable scheme and Andy Dalton as their playcaller. Other than Darren McFadden the Oakland offense was a joke, and in Cincinnati, Ross will share the field with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and a scary backfield. This is key, as Heyward-Bey had the best season of his career in 2011 when Carson Palmer arrived as a replacement for the injured Jason Campbell and talented offensive guru Hue Jackson was their head coach.
Talent is huge, but where a player lands in the NFL plays an increasingly important role in their career. Heyward-Bey wasn’t only overdrafted, but also went to a team that had to wait until 2015 to figure things out. Ross might have been a reach, but he is what an already established team needed and he should only benefit from that. Cincinnati is not expecting Ross to be their number one guy, whereas Oakland surrounded Heyward-Bey with some of the worst wide receivers of the early 2010s.
We’ve discussed how good Ross is and how well he fits in the Bengals offense on plenty of occasions already, and I don’t need to remind you that I was a fan of the choice - even if Corey Davis, taken by the Titans with the fifth overall pick, was my plan-A. He already offers more than what Heyward-Bey did coming into the league, with superior talent and a better college résumé. He’s also going to a team that can afford to use him where in a way in which he can maximize his weapons and not be the number one guy who needs to carry the offense.
Without any scouting credentials to my name, I bet Ross won’t be the next Heyward-Bey and he won’t be a one-trick pony. The Bengals’ offensive staff must work to put Ross in the best situations to make an impact, either as a decoy to free the midfield for Eifert or Boyd, to reduce double-coverages on Green, or as a complete receiver who can run the full tree and can make big damage after the catch as well.
Speed is his means, not his goal.