There was more pressure than usual on Bengals rookies to produce last season after a rough 2016 campaign for the team. No one felt the pressure more than John Ross who was drafted with the ninth overall pick. Many fans expected him to help kickstart the Bengals’ offense, but several things held Ross back from fulfilling those expectations. One of the biggest things was playing catch up all year, at least when he was healthy.
Ross wasn’t able to attend voluntary workouts due to an NCAA rule that didn’t let NFL players whose colleges had not had graduation participate in any organized practices with the team until the college semester ends. The rule was so bad that it has since been scrapped. Even then, Ross was still rehabbing from shoulder surgery, which was only the beginning of his injury-filled season. All of this set him firmly behind, and he realized that.
That wasn’t the only thing holding Ross back last year. The pressure of being picked so high, expecting to produce early and just trying to get to a place where he could be trusted on the field all weighed so heavily on him that even A.J. Green had to say something to him.
“You have to slow down. Get under yourself. Calm down. Just stop thinking. I’m watching you think about it. Just stop thinking,” Ross recounts of the advice Green gave him.
Green knows a lot about the situation Ross stepped into from an expectations point. The former fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft was viewed as a can’t miss prospect, which is a very hard title and evaluation to live up to. Not to mention, he was coming to a team that was undergoing a vast amount of change after their franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, decided he’d rather retire or be traded than play for the Bengals again. Cincinnati was desperate for a new face of the franchise, and Green delivered by helping the Bengals reach the playoffs in his rookie year
Ross has a lot of similar expectations to live up to aside from being the ninth overall selection. He came into the NFL after breaking the 40-yard dash record and he also has to prove his growing number of doubters wrong after a train wreck of a rookie season.
“Pressure is still the same. Even more so,” Ross said. “‘Is he going to perform? How well is he going to perform?’ I kind of had to stop thinking about it. That’s one of my biggest things. I’m thinking about everything I’m doing and it’s taking away from how talented I actually am. They’re in my ear a lot saying, ‘Just relax. Be yourself. We can tell when you’re yourself. You perform better. You just have to stop thinking so much.”
Ross has really been putting in the time and effort to turn it around this offseason. If it hasn’t been working on the advice he has been given, it has been fully recovering from the injuries that plagued him last season.
“I couldn’t ask to feel any better than I do now,” Ross said. “It’s the best I’ve felt since I went into my last year of college.”
That’s good to hear, because in his final year at Washington, Green caught 81 passes, surpassed 1,000 yards receiving and scored 17 touchdowns. It would be hard for him to replicate those numbers in the NFL with guys like Green and Tyler Eifert also expected to get quite a few targets, but if he can establish the threat of being that guy it would be a huge gain for the Bengals offense. Another thing Ross has been working on to help blockout the thoughts holding him back is getting his confidence back. For that he enlisted the help of former Bengals’ receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
“T.J. is the most confident guy I’ve ever met in my life. I can say that with a straight face,” Ross said. “That first day we met I felt like I knew him my whole life. He doesn’t think he could still be a third receiver in the NFL. He believes it.”
Houshmandzadeh also helped remind Ross that he needs to remember he is more than just a track star.
“He said, ‘You got drafted ninth because you’re talented and you work hard,’” Ross said. “‘Just continue to do so. You’ll get better.’”
These things have all helped Ross grow going into OTAs and training camp, and the one guy who it matters to most has even seen the difference.
“He looks good. Completely different than he did last year,” Andy Dalton said. “You can tell he worked hard. It looks like he’s getting back to where he was. He looks smooth. Everyone knew he was fast, but he’s not just a straight-line guy. He can stop and go. He’s got some shiftiness to him.”
Dalton surely wants Ross to rise to the expectations set out for him and more than anything, wants for him to be healthy.
“Last year he was trying to learn and rehab his shoulder at the same time. But seeing it on paper and actually going out and doing it are two completely different things,” Dalton said. “Now that he’s had an offseason to get healthy, you can tell. He’s catching the ball really well. He’s going up and getting it the little we’ve done so far.”
Talk is all well and good. It is great to hear these things, but it is a whole other thing for Ross to come out and show us he is the player that the Bengals thought they were getting with the ninth overall pick.
Let’s hope Ross proves his worth when the 2018 arrives.