The NFL scouts knew wide receiver John Ross could be a big play threat down the field stretching defenses with his blazing speed. After all, Ross ran a record time of 4.22 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL combine. When the Bengals selected him ninth overall, Ross looked like an impeccable complement to A.J. Green as another deep threat.
Instead, Ross has carved out a niche as one of the Bengals' top options in the red zone.
"I think it kind of happens that way," Ross said before Wednesday's practice. "They call the right plays at the right time. Andy (Dalton) and Jeff (Driskel) do an unbelievable job of throwing a perfect ball inside the red zone. I just try to go out there and make a play whenever my number is called."
Ross is in a three-way tie for the team lead on six touchdown receptions with wide receivers A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. What is remarkable is the six have come from only 18 catches and four of them have come in the red zone. His longest catch of the year was a 39-yard touchdown in Atlanta on Sept. 30.
"That's kind of a crazy stat to have a third of all your catches be touchdowns," said quarterback Jeff Driskel. "He does a good job down there in tight of making contested catches and getting open. He's definitely somebody we look for down in the red zone, but also out in the open field as well. We expect him to continue to improve and produce more game after game."
Ross's 33-percent touchdown catch rate is among the best in the NFL: the Chiefs' Tyreek Hill is at 14.8 percent, the Steelers' Antonio Brown 13.9 and Green Bay's Davante Adams 13.
Credit offensive coordinator Bill Lazor for using Ross' speed and game-breaking abilities to help the Bengals rank second in the NFL in red zone efficiency at 75 percent. With four touchdowns in the last five games, the Bengals are hoping Ross' development means he can become a non-Green red zone threat that has been missing since tight end Tyler Eifert scored 13 touchdowns in 13 games back in his Pro Bowl season of 2015.
Ross' jump from a tough first season where he played in only three games last year is possible because of patience and experience. Getting in the end zone is nothing new. He finished the 2016 season at Washington with 17 touchdown receptions, second most in Pac-12 history.
"The whole mental side of it, getting a chance to be out there you learn so much as opposed to watching," Ross said. "In college, I think it was different, I sat out for a year after my knee injury and I kind of watched things from a coach perspective. You can always dictate the speed at those levels, but here everything is much faster mentally and physically. To actually be out there I am learning a lot and got a chance to create some opportunities for myself that I didn't have before."
Driskel too believes Ross has grown up a lot in a calendar year.
"He's definitely come a long way," Driskel said. "Whether it is understanding our offense, our scheme and what we are trying to get done or understanding how leverage works and what defenses are trying to do, he's definitely come a long way. He is just going to continue to improve and the sky is just the limit for him."