The Bengals found a running mate for A.J. Green in the first round of the NFL draft, passing on several highly-rated defensive players to take speedy receiver John Ross from Washington.
For the second time in three years, Cincinnati drafted a player in the first round who is coming off surgery. Ross set an NFL combine record by running a 4.22-second 40-yard dash, and then had surgery for a torn labrum. The Bengals expect him to be ready for the start of the season and ready to make an impact immediately.
“This guy’s role kind of jumps out at you with his speed,” offensive coordinator Ken Zampese said.
The last time the Bengals chose a receiver with their first pick was 2011, when they took Green fourth overall. Their offense crumbled last season after Green severely pulled a hamstring and missed six full games and most of one other. The Bengals finished 6-9-1, missing out on the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Now they’ve got another receiver who can force defenses to guard against the long pass , something they’ve wanted since receiver Marvin Jones left as a free agent following the 2015 season.
“It kind of balances the other side of the field,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “When you’re playing against him, people feel his speed.”
Two years ago, they took Cedric Ogbuehi with their first overall pick even though he was recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. He missed most of his rookie season and struggled at right tackle last year. The Bengals plan to move him to left tackle and replace Andrew Whitworth.
Cornerback William Jackson III missed his rookie season last year with a torn chest muscle.
Ross tore the labrum in the fifth game last season but kept playing. He finished with 81 catches for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns. Setting the record for the 40-yard dash at the combine brought him additional notice. Ross had surgery on both knees earlier in his career.
“I think it just got people to realize exactly how fast I am,” Ross said during a conference call. “I definitely got more attention.”
He got the Bengals’ attention late in the draft process. They invited him to Paul Brown Stadium after his surgery, the last team to invite him to get to know the coaching staff. He felt they hit it off right away.
“I got that vibe when I was there,” he said. “I called my agent and told him how good I felt. I told him, ‘Don’t be surprised if the phone rings on draft day and it’s the Bengals.'”
The Bengals return their top three receivers from last season — Green, wideout Brandon LaFell and slot receiver Tyler Boyd — along with tight end Tyler Eifert. LaFell finished second in catches and yards to Green, and he signed a two-year deal after the season.
“You say, ‘I can really see (Ross) fitting in with the guys we have,” Zampese said.
Cincinnati is still looking to upgrade a defense that had trouble getting pressure on the quarterback, especially in the first half of last season. The Bengals finished with their second-fewest sacks in the last eight years, and they slipped to a middle-of-the-pack defense overall.
Lewis said there were several coveted defensive players left at the ninth pick because of how the round worked out, but Ross was too enticing. Lewis said no other team was interested in trading for the ninth spot.
The Bengals will look for a pass rusher on the second day of the draft.