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John Ross’ rookie year role could resemble Andrew Hawkins’ with Bengals

John Ross brings speed and versatility to the Bengals, but he might be buried behind some veterans at his position group. Still, there are creative and familiar ways to get him involved as he grows into a pro receiver.

2017 NFL Draft Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Even though speed is a trait known as something you can’t coach, there are certain stigmas associated with being one of the NFL’s fastest men. For a “speed receiver”, supposed negatives like fragility due to slightness of stature and being a one-trick pony often follow players with those profiles.

With the No. 9 overall pick, the Cincinnati Bengals went with an intriguing and much-needed pick in wide receiver John Ross. His NFL Combine record 4.22 speed conjures up his ability to take the top off of an opposing defense with the deep ball. While it’s an important facet to Ross’ skill set and one that Cincinnati will likely use often in his career, there is a chance we see him used in some different ways a little more than anticipated.

I’ve re-examined some of Ross’s film and one thing continually stands out aside from his speed. It’s his insane ability to make plays in space. Whether it’s on slants, bubble screens or end-around plays, Ross can dance around defenders as well as he runs away from them. It’s this somewhat-unheralded ability that makes Ross seem like much more than just a guy who can run the “nine route”.

(Editor’s Note: There is some NSFW language in the below clip, so our apologies and use with caution.)

Now take a look some of the highlights from Andrew Hawkins in his time with the Bengals. While there are some similarities in playing style with Ross and Hawkins, the real thing to note here is in the ways Cincinnati used “Baby Hawk”. For a number of reasons, these might be plays in the offense’s arsenal they will use in the early portions of Ross’ career.

Screens set up by the offensive line, shovel passes and a number of “gadget” plays were created for Hawkins in the Bengals’ offense. But, aside from that, yards-after-the catch opportunities were frequently used to allow his athleticism to take over.

Even though the Bengals are on their second offensive coordinator since those above highlights, there might be reasons to believe we see Ross get similar touches to Hawkins early on in 2017.

Skill sets and creating opportunities for an exciting player:

Even though there are size differences between the two (Hawkins is 5’7”, 175 pounds, while Ross is listed at 5’11”, 188 pounds), certain aspects of what they can do on the field are similar. Obviously, Ross, because of his increased size and college production, seems like a better prospect than Hawkins and that’s why Ross was selected No. 9 overall, as opposed to Baby Hawk going undrafted all the way back in 2008 (keep that in mind when you note his impressive path to the NFL).

However, then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden tried to create plays designed to take advantage of Hawkins’ speed and shiftiness. Even though the Bengals had A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu at times throughout Hawkins’ Bengals career, he brought a different type of sizzle from all of those other quality players. And lately, a player like Hawkins has been one the team has missed—particularly with Jones and Sanu leaving in free agency last year.

The same idea goes with Ross and this year’s Bengals’ receiving corps. Aside from Green, Ross most likely brings the most electric play-making ability on the offense. While he’ll be buried behind Green, Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd, in terms of getting passing looks as a wide receiver this year, Ken Zampese may take a page out of Gruden’s playbook and create specific types of plays for the rookie.

Aside from the occasional long ball to Ross, we might be seeing a number of end-arounds, swing passes, slants and other quick-hitters to aid the offense. Even if it’s sometimes out of the comfort zone as a team, good coaches create opportunities for their most explosive players to get the ball in their hands. Zampese and the Bengals would be well-served to do this with Ross.

Masking offensive line issues:

The Bengals’ biggest question this year, aside from youth, resides in the offensive line. While there are a number of former high picks who seem to have the inside track on starting jobs up front, they’ll need to perform above current expectations if the Bengals want to make it back to the postseason.

One way to mask any issues up front is to use those aforementioned quick-hitting passes. Slants, shovel passes and other ways to alleviate pressure on Andy Dalton will likely be part of the key to Cincinnati’s offensive success this season and hide some of the potential issues up front. Because of Ross’ speed and YAC ability, the rookie who seems to be a little lower on the current depth chart might actually be a big cog to the 2017 Bengals—even if it’s in a few touches per game.

Yes, the Bengals lost their two best offensive linemen this offseason in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, but if Zampese shows the necessary growth as a coordinator this year, he could find ways to use this group’s respective strengths. While Whitworth and Zeitler were good pullers, certain plays from the old Hawkins playbook could be used for Ross to achieve great results this year without them.