In Week 3 of the 2018 preseason, the Bengals’ defense had forced the Bills’ offense into a three-and-out to open the game. On the first offensive snap for the Bengals in the game, Andy Dalton unloaded a deep ball to John Ross. The receiver then made two defenders miss and ran into the end zone for a 57-yard touchdown.
That was why the Bengals drafted the guy that broke the 40-yard dash record at the NFL combine. The Bengals needed a dynamic playmaker across from A.J. Green that could tear opposing defenses to shreds.
But that play was a long time coming.
When Ross was drafted with the ninth-overall pick in 2017, he was still recovering from an injury he had sustained at the NFL Combine, while running that record-breaking 40-yard dash. He missed parts of training camp and fell behind. This, and possibly other reasons that are still a mystery, caused him to fall out of favor with Marvin Lewis, and John Ross was shut down partway into the season.
By the time his season ended, Ross had only played 17 snaps, been targeted once, and had no catches. The only time he touched the ball was on a rushing attempt, which ended in a fumble.
While other rookie receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, and Keenan Cole were all having great seasons (all of which were drafted in the second round or later), Ross was wearing street clothes on the sidelines.
His second year had to be better.
By the end of his second preseason, it looked like Ross was well on his way to a better season. He toasted Vontae Davis on his epic touchdown in Orchard Park, New York, and Davis retired two weeks later. (we’re not saying it’s related, but...)
Then, regular season rolled around and Ross proved to still be a work in progress. In 2018, Ross was tied for 34th in yards and 37th in receptions among all pass catchers picked in the 2017 draft, even though Ross was the third receiver taken. He was 107th in yards and T-98th in receptions among all NFL receivers.
The only real flash of brilliance he showed was in his 39-yard touchdown against the Falcons, a play in which he injured his groin and would have to sit out the following two games, miss most of the third, and then sit out in the fourth.
Ross was T-13th in the NFL in receiving touchdowns with seven, but he didn’t stretch the field the way the Bengals had hoped he would. Only two of his touchdowns came from outside the red zone.
His yards-per-game average in 2018 was 16.2, which is what he should be averaging per catch.
The stat line in the season opener against the Colts describes his season pretty accurately: two targets, one catch, three yards, one touchdown.
Ross had more yards in his 39-yard catch against the Falcons than he had all season before that play.
If you compare Ross’ production after two seasons (21 catches, 210 yards, seven touchdowns) to those of other receivers in his draft class, we can get a sense of what the Bengals were after when they drafted him. Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick, had 169 receptions, 2,343 yards, and 14 touchdowns by the end of year two. Third-round pick Kenny Golladay had 98/1,540/8. Fourth-round pick Dede Westbrook had 93/1056/6. Need I go on?
The point of cherry picking the best receivers from the draft class isn’t just comparing one player to another. It’s to show what the production of a ninth-overall pick should actually look like. Ross shouldn’t barely crack the top 200 in two important statistical categories. He should be up there at the top of the charts with Smith-Schuster and Golladay.
You could argue that Dalton was just not as accurate to Ross as he was to the other receivers, but that’s actually part of the problem. Ross can’t seem to develop the chemistry that Green and Tyler Boyd have developed.
Ultimately, Ross hasn’t lived up to the billing of a first-round draft pick. So the Bengals are cutting their losses right and putting him on the trading block.
You might be thinking the Bengals won’t be getting back the first-round pick they used on him. You would be right. They won’t.
But if they get a second or third-round pick for a player they’re getting sixth or seventh-round production out of, then that’s a win.
The Bengals took a gamble on Ross in 2017, and it’s time to call it. They lost.
Now Zac Taylor wants to reload the roster and get back to the Super Bowl. So he wants to take a player with an egregious lack of production and turn him into draft capital that he can use to hand-pick his own player.
The idea of trading him is not crazy; the timing is what is strange. It might be a better idea to see where the team is before the trade deadline, then mull over the situation from there. Maybe Taylor thinks that Ross’ value can only go down from here, which is why he wants to unload him before the draft.
Either way, Taylor was hired to turn the Bengals around, and that is what he is trying to do. Getting some value back for Ross seems to be the way he does it.
Maybe Ross can still develop into a top prospect. Perhaps the change of scenery will be good for him.
But he is dead weight in Cincinnati, and it’s time from the Bengals to move on from the John Ross experiment.