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Did Bengals reach for John Ross?

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Was John Ross a reach or a good value for the Bengals in Round 1 of the 2017 NFL Draft?

Arizona State v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Bengals seemed to pull together a very solid draft, which reached across both sides of the ball, and onto special teams, too. It should appeal to fans of the Best Player Available (BPA) strategy by stealing Joe Mixon in Round 2 and edge rushers like Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis even later. It also should appeal to that crazy need-based crowd, by focusing on a pair of edge rushers, a running back to replace Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead, and a wide receiver who could replicate Marvin Jones’ production – and then some.

But one person the Bengals’ draft did not appease was CBSSports’ Jason La Canorfa.

Despite the Bengals putting together perhaps one of the top drafts in terms of high-quality prospects, the national media has found one thing or another to grumble about, be it injury histories, Joe Mixon’s troubled past, or something else. LaCanorfa has joined the pile-on with his own take on why to hate on the Bengals’ draft. In his diatribe, he calls the Bengals’ selection of John Ross a “reach”.

But was Ross really a reach? Let’s look at his arguments and separate the sense from the nonsense.

He points out that “It wasn't a great class that early (for wide receivers)”, showing his opinion that the three wide receivers weren’t worth top-10 selections. This may possibly true. But what he chooses to ignore is that it wasn’t a great class in the top 10 for any position. This draft was widely considered to lack many elite talents (besides perhaps Myles Garrett and Jamal Adams) but made up for this by being very deep. Many analysts believe you could get the same caliber of player at #30 or #40 that you could get at #10 or #15, specifically in this year’s draft class. So in that regard, whoever a team took at #9 (such as Ross) could have been viewed as big of a reach as any of the other players taken in the first round.

His gripe with the Bengals’ pick seems to primarily hinge on them choosing Ross over Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who he felt was a better prospect. He goes on to say, “Howard making it out of the top 10 was a shocker to me.” He also quotes an “AFC decision maker” as confiding to him, "I can't believe he fell to 19”. But if Howard was better than #19 overall, then why didn’t this “decision maker” draft Howard sooner? Why didn’t any other AFC or NFC decision makers draft him before pick 19?

This complaint about passing on Howard is largely unfounded when one looks to history, and realizes that in the past 20 years, only three tight ends have gone in the top 10 – Kellen Winslow (2004), Vernon Davis (2006), and Eric Ebron (2014). In most years, the top tight ends in the draft go in the mid to late first round. Jeremy Shockey went 14th, Tyler Eifert was 21st, Dallas Clark was 24th, Heath Miller 30th, and both Todd Heap and Greg Olsen were chosen 31st. To gripe about passing on a tight end in the top 10 is an absurd complaint because tight ends are rarely ever chosen in the top 10. Howard was a nice prospect, but nothing about him screamed top 10. The only reason he was considered by some to go that high is because of the lack of elite prospects in this year’s draft, meaning that just about anybody was in play for picks in the 10 to 30 range. Therefore, La Canfora is essentially complaining that while many teams with picks in the top half of round one had to “reach”, none of them reached for the player he felt they should have reached for – Howard.

Moving past the mixture of grasping at straws and unfounded nonsense, let’s look at the selection of John Ross and consider if history says it was really a “reach” with the 10th pick. Instead of whining that teams passed on Howard, let’s look back over the past 20 years and see how John Ross stacks up against the other wide receiver prospects drafted around where he was: #7 thru #11 overall.

I’ve sorted the receivers into three categories, based on how they were generally rated and perceived at the time they were drafted. Either ones who had higher grades than Ross, those who had similar reviews, and those who were considered to be bad reaches at the time. These ratings are not based on their actual NFL production.

Receivers who were better prospects:

  • David Boston (8th overall 1999)
  • Plaxico Burress (8th overall 2000)
  • David Terrell (8th overall 2001)
  • Koren Robinson (9th overall 2001)
  • Kevin White (7th overall 2016)

Receivers who were comparable prospects:

  • Roy Williams (7th overall 2004)
  • Michael Crabtree (10th overall 2009)
  • Mike Evans (7th overall 2014)

Receivers who were worse prospects:

  • Travis Taylor (10th overall 2000)
  • Reggie Williams (9th overall 2004)
  • Troy Williamson (7th overall 2005)
  • Mike Williams (10th overall 2005)
  • Ted Ginn (9th overall 2007)
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey (7th overall 2009)
  • Tavon Austin (8th overall 2013)

It’s debatable where each of these prospects should be rated, but I think there is little disagreement in regards to those who were worse prospects. Mike Williams had been out of football for a year. Ginn and Heyward-Bey were straight line runners who couldn’t catch the football. Austin was an undersized speedster with a limited role in the NFL. And so on, and so on.

If Ross were really a “reach”, then we’d expect to find many more prospects who graded higher than him, when they were drafted. Instead, that’s not what we find. We find Ross to be right in the mix of the receivers drafted in the same range where Ross was selected. Ross has the fastest speed ever at the modern combine, runs very good routes, has good hands, and was productive in a good college conference. So to dismiss the Bengals’ draft because they refused to take a tight end in the top 10, and because Ross falls right in line with similarly graded receivers, is essentially nonsense.