Who else remembers John Ross’ start for the Bengals in 2019? Week 1 against the Seahawks, the former top-10 pick was a flat out x-factor as the vertical threat on the outside, finishing with a weekend-high 158 yards and two touchdowns. The following week against the 49ers, he doubled down, shining with four catches, 112 yards, and another score. That was the Ross fans envisioned coming out of Washington. Now entering a contract year in 2020, can we see more of those good moments from Ross in a Bengals uniform?

A non-ideal start to a crucial season

When speaking of the positives from Ross’ 2019, the lists quickly runs dry. However, that has been the storyline for four straight years: flashes of the next great speed demon, suppressed by not-so-subtle disappointments. After the Bengals declined his fifth-year option, 2020 is a prove-it season for Ross to now earn his roster spot with the Bengals or another team next year. 

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Unfortunately, Ross has not had an ideal start to this crucial season, especially with a brand new QB under center in 2020. The 25-year old had to return to camp to help care for his 3-year old son and his mother.

“There was no thought behind it,” Ross said on Sunday. “There was no chance of me staying. With all due respect to anything, I’m a father first.”

Returning to the Jungle, there is absolutely the potential of a breakout year for Ross if he can remain healthy. With Joe Burrow looking to make an impact in his rookie season, he’ll need that x-factor to win outside. Enter Ross, who can be just that in 2020.

John Ross is the missing link to the Bengals’ success in 2020

Burrow’s success in college relied on a tag-team receiver corps in Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase. The new Minnesota Vikings rookie, Jefferson, led the FBS in catches (111) from the slot while Chase became a household name in the SEC. Hoisting the Biletnikoff Award, Chase finished 2019 with 84 catches, 1,780 yards, and a league-high 20 touchdowns. 

Burrow will have the accountability of Jefferson’s role with Tyler Boyd. A two-time 1,000-yard target, the budding slot receiver was one, if not the only, bright spot on the 26th ranked offense. Chase’s role is where Ross will step up to help Burrow finish near the top of all Rookie of the Year awards. 

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Ross’s production in three years doesn’t scratch the surface of Chase’s breakout campaign. With 49 career catches for 716 yards and 10 scores, it’s clear he’s underperformed at the position. More importantly, he understands it. 

Chase and Ross have similar measurements, which suggests we could see more from Ross. In the pass-heavy offense, Burrow targeted the sophomore most on first down for big-time gains. Averaging 24.3 yards per catch, it led the Tigers to average 48.4 points per game.

Ross should see a majority of his targets on early downs. Ross’ speed should allow him to win a majority of battles against slow cornerbacks. While he is likely not a 100-catch caliber player, it’s what Ross will do after the catch that makes him valuable. 

Injury Concern? 

Ross has never played a full season since leaving Seattle. He played 17 snaps his rookie year, best remembered with a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown. In his second year, he was a red-zone success, scoring five of his seven touchdowns inside the 10-yard line. His third season was promising before a shoulder injury sent him to the IR for eight weeks. 

“I need to play all 16 games. I need to stay healthy and I need to make plays in every single game,” Ross said. “It’s on me to do that. The thing about it, I wouldn’t have picked up my option either. It [the option] guarantees injury if you get hurt. I’ve been injured every single year. That’s not a bad decision by them. And now it’s on me to show them why I should be here longer. That’s how I look at it.”

Related | Bengals Mailbag: Is 2020 John Ross’ final season in Cincinnati?

Ross spent the offseason taking care of his body, heading to chiropractors, and physical therapy. This attention to his body could be the difference when expecting a breakout campaign. Even when breaking the 40-yard record time in Lucas Oil Stadium, he injured himself during the process.

“Mentally, I feel like it’s the most confident I’ve ever been,” he said. “I think that was kind of the biggest thing with me. When I was thinking about all the things that really didn’t have anything to do with what I should be doing for four quarters. I think that’s the biggest thing for me is just having my confidence back and understanding how talented I actually am and believing in myself.” 

Early indications are that Ross has confidence, a first since being drafted four years ago. Now going through proper protocol to return, his ducks are in order to command respect. 

Rebuilt Offense 

Any receiver can step up for the Bengals in a crucial year. Outside of Boyd, there isn’t an established star from the 2019 season. A.J. Green and Ross are both returning from injury, Auden Tate has been effective in the red zone but not consistent, and Alex Erickson will be fighting for reps against Ross.

Keep in mind the Bengals also drafted Tee Higgins with the 33rd selection last April. Likely the eventual replacement for Green, the Clemson standout excels with his frame and ability to win off his hands alone. However, the speed and potential for plays deep downfield could allow Ross to make an impact early this season.

The Bengals won’t be in contention this season in a strong AFC North. Ross, though, will have something to play for in a new deal. That new contract will give him a chance to be a part of the bright future in southern Ohio, it’s now or never for him to prove he is a player that can elevate the offense.

In four months, the Bengals will have an idea where Ross sits in their storyline for years to come.