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Could Bengals surprise fans by exercising John Ross’ fifth-year option?

There is a very good chance the Bengals allow John Ross’ rookie deal to expire following 2020, but he has one thing working in his favor.

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Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals have a decision to make following the NFL Draft, and that is what to do with former first round wide receiver John Ross III. Cincinnati has until May 5th to decide whether or not to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

Before we talk about what they’ll most likely do, we need to discuss the logistics of what the Bengals are deciding. If Cincinnati doesn’t pull the trigger on Ross’ option, he will set to be a free agent following the 2020 season. If they do decide to have Ross play out his fifth-year option, then things become a little more complicated.

Ross will likely be paid roughly $15.5 million for the 2021 season, according to Jay Morrison of The Athletic. That salary would also become guaranteed the first day of the 2021 NFL season, according to Andre Perrotta. That is obviously a pretty significant deal for what Ross has done so far in his career, but will the Bengals bet on new quarterback Joe Burrow turning around his career?

Why the Bengals may pass

The deal is very lucrative. The Bengals are currently set to have roughly $88 million in cap space for 2021. That seems like a lot, but Cincinnati are already looking at possibly re-signing players like Joe Mixon and A.J. Green on longer term deals. They also have players like William Jackson and Carl Lawson who will need extensions as well. Ross taking up $15 million of that space doesn’t seem ideal.

The other things obviously working against Ross are his production and availability issues. He has only played in 24 games through three seasons. Some of that was due to the past regime often making Ross a healthy scratch, but it has still led to a limited body of work. Through the first two weeks of 2019 Ross had already eclipsed his receiving totals from his first two seasons combined (aside from touchdowns).

Over his three years with the Bengals, Ross has 716 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns on 49 catches. He has often been very hit or miss. He had eight drops in 2019, which was tied for the sixth most in the NFL. Also, Andy Dalton and Ross never really seemed to get on the same page.

It wouldn’t be surprising for Cincinnati to let Ross prove himself during a contract season in 2020 with how his career has played out for them so far.

Why the Bengals may exercise the option

That Bengals only have Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate and rookie Tee Higgins under contract past 2020 is the one piece of leverage working in Ross’ favor right now. This is still pending a long-term deal with Green, but the deadline of May 5th really plays in Ross’ favor. If Green and the front office still aren’t close on a deal, they may opt to take the security of at least having Ross on the roster for another season rather than having to completely refill their receiving corps after 2020.

Cincinnati also may bank on Ross’ strong start last season to become closer to the norm with Burrow. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Burrow’s accuracy and creativity outside of structure could have Ross contribute more to the offense. He will still be behind Green and Boyd in the picking order, but he should still have a fair amount of opportunities.

This is admittedly not very likely, but you can bet that if they decide to bring Ross back for the 2021 season, this will be the rationale for that decision. It could end up paying off if Ross does breakout with Burrow.