CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis isn’t worried about John Ross’ confidence after a tough rookie season.
It’s something the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2017 first-round draft pick finally seems to have for the first time since he arrived last spring, unable to participate in offseason workouts because of shoulder surgery.
In what essentially was a lost season, the former University of Washington wide receiver battled injuries in his knee and shoulder before finally landing on the injured reserve list after just three appearances. His only touch on the ball was a 12-yard run that ended with a lost fumble.
“John grew up in Long Beach, California,” Lewis said Tuesday when asked if he was concerned Ross might struggle to regain confidence. “I have no question about his confidence. I know where he went to school. I know where he grew up. I know the block he lived on. I don't worry about John and his confidence. You've got to be confident just to walk every day (there).”
That confidence was missing last year, but it showed on the first day of Organized Team Activities (OTAs). Ross looked sharp in drills, catching a number of passes in 11 on 11 situations and looking noticeably stronger.
Ross said he is feeling good just knowing he was able to participate from Day 1. Last year felt like he was constantly playing catch-up.
The 5-foot-11 speedster underwent shoulder surgery after the NFL Combine in February 2017 and his rehab kept him out of offseason and preseason activities until the middle of August. He then suffered a knee injury on his first play in the Bengals’ preseason finale but returned for the Week 2 loss to Houston, in which he fumbled on his first touch and got benched.
Ross tweaked the knee in practice that next week and was out until Oct. 29. After just two more games and 17 total snaps, he remained on the bench and eventually it came out he had re-injured his shoulder, which sent him to the IR list for the remainder of the year.
“Last year, I was just down not being able to run full speed, not being able to do everything in the weight room,” Ross said. “And, not to have excuses or anything, but I just honestly wasn't physically or mentally ready for what I got myself into. There was much going on, but me feeling the way I am now, it feels great. I feel better and I'm happy to be where I am."
Ross continued to reflect on 2017 and looked forward.
“I couldn't put a stamp on what was the problem because there were so many problems,” he said. “I was focused on something new every week, and that's when I realized, 'It's just not working for me right now.' That's when I had a meeting with the coaches, the trainers and just focused on where I need to be, what would be best for me moving forward.”
Ross was able to start lifting weights again at the beginning of this year and spent time working out with former Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
That experience on its own helped Ross build up some confidence, he said.
“I think the best advice I got this year is T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) telling me how he started his career,” Ross said. “His rookie year he barely played, and look how he blossomed. Everybody goes through adversity. I take things and just keep moving forward.”
Houshmandzadeh, who also is from California, was drafted by the Bengals in 2001 but didn’t become a regular starter until 2004. He played 11 seasons in the NFL, including eight in Cincinnati. The former Bengals standout isn’t the only one to give Ross advice on bouncing back from a tough season.
Ross said A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell also have been reminding him it’s “going to be OK.”
“Every year is not going to be perfect,” Green, a seven-time Pro Bowl receiver, said last week when asked about Ross. “Even LeBron James has bad games. … Just having a year under his belt to understand this whole NFL process and the way we go about things here, he’s being more comfortable and just starting off fresh.”
Ross said he just needs to prove to himself and his teammates that he can contribute. He knows there are doubters out there, but isn’t worried about impressing outsiders.
“That's the biggest thing,” he said. “I think everyone knows why I was drafted. The media, not so much (local media), but the fans and everyone else is saying it's because I ran a 4.22 (in the 40-yard dash). But before that, I think I already was going to get drafted high, so I don't worry too much about that. I'm here to prove to my teammates I can play alongside of them, and just like they are, I'm willing to do what it takes.”
While Ross was able to soak up information in meetings and learn just by being around the team through his rookie season, the progress still has to show on the field. His first day of OTAs was one step forward.
“It's been a while,” Lewis said. “He's had so few snaps around 11 guys on the other side of the ball, so this is great work for him and great experience for him that he was not able to get a year ago. He's had so few of these days, so it was a good chance for him over the next nine days to get an opportunity to play 11 on 11 football that he hasn't had a whole lot of opportunity to do.”
Lewis was pleased to see Ross come back looking physically stronger.
Part of that is just from maturing and developing as a young man, but Lewis also noted that Ross didn’t have any weight training last offseason and was limited at times before he was shut down in the fall. That hasn’t been the case the last five weeks since voluntary workouts began at Paul Brown Stadium.
Ross said his legs and upper body are stronger, and he’s finally able to do everything in the weight room with the rest of his teammates. His weight ranged from 185-188 pounds last year, but now he’s up to 190-196, depending on the weather, what he’s done that day and what he’s eaten.
“I started college real small and wasn't able to lift, and then I got to lift and I felt better as a player,” Ross said. “Now I'm back to where I was back when I was in college, my senior year, as far as how physically ready I felt, and I feel the same way.”
So how, did he feel about his performance Tuesday? It can only get better from here, he said.
“It's something I've been waiting for for a long time, and I felt really good out there on Day 1,” Ross said.
“I've felt good all year. I wanted to have a good day today. I had a few (mistakes). I had a drop and some stuff like that, but there are things I'll correct. It was Day 1, and I'll get better.”