Reception Perception: John Ross and Going Beyond the Speed

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Coming off the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, the biggest story is without question John Ross and his now quantified speed. Ross ripped off an official 4.22 seconds time in the 40-yard dash, which broke Chris Johnson’s previously held record of 4.24 from 2008. We already knew Ross was fast, but this act proved he was on another level of speed.

Studying deep threats is one of the more enjoyable endeavors when scouting wide receivers. There seems to be a desire by some to simply lump all vertical threats into the “one trick pony” category, implying that outside of their speed on long catches, these players don’t offer much else. However, that more often than not tends to be an oversimplification on what a player can do, leaving aside what they might be asked to do.

It also appears that the public at-large seems to have a quite a distaste for the unpredictable, submitting to variance or forgoing the overemphasis of negative events. As such, when a player whose primary asset is deep speed falls into the negative side of variance on one too many prominent occasions, the bad taste often lingers for viewers who have these biases. Yet, we must accept and submit to that variance when viewing these players. You cannot reap the rewards of what these players have to offer without opening up to experiencing some negatives.

Personally, the most fascinating portion of studying deep threats is discerning what else they bring to the table. A player like John Ross fits the bill for this type of question. Even before his record-breaking 40-yard dash, we knew he was fast. A simple exposure to a highlight reel will tell you that. The question in my mind and that of many others is “What else can Ross do and what’s his projected ceiling in terms of an NFL role?” He could be strictly a vertical threat, or fall along a different branch of the archetype of small fast receivers like Odell Beckham and T.Y. Hilton who have taken their games to lengths beyond just winning deep with their speed.

Hilton, and especially Beckham, represent the peak of the small speedy receiver archetype as true No. 1 wideouts who win as technicians at all levels of the field. The question to answer with Ross is whether he demonstrates similar ability as to join those two or whether he likely falls in the next tier of speed receivers like DeSean Jackson or Mike Wallace at his best.

Alignment and Target Data

Games sampled: USC, Alabama, Oregon, Arizona, California-Berkeley, Stanford

At the University of Washington, John Ross primarily lined up as the team’s X-receiver or flanker. He only took 9.7 percent of his snaps sampled for Reception Perception out of the slot with all but one other coming at right or left wide receiver. The majority of his snaps, 60.5 percent, took place with Ross on the line of scrimmage.

Given Ross’ 5-foot-11, sub 190-pound frame it’s likely that his NFL team will look to make use of him in the slot more often than the Huskies football team did. With Phillip Dorsett and Donte Moncrief breaking in as starters outside, the Colts deployed T.Y. Hilton in the slot more this past year the ever before. Half of Hilton’s 155 targets this season came when he was lined up in the slot. As a result, the diminutive speedsters enjoyed more favorable matchup than he sees with bigger corners on the outside and turned in the best year of his career.

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While such a utilization plan could benefit Ross in the NFL, he had no issues winning on the outside at Washington. One of the most productive receivers in the nation, Ross saw a target go his way on 32.4 percent of the routes he ran over his six-game Reception Perception sample. His conversion rate was a tick lower, with a catch coming on 19.2 percent of those routes, but much of that is due to the high degree of difficulty deep targets he received.

In-space and Ancillary Metrics

In his final season in school, John Ross tacked on another 417 kick return yards to his lofty receiving totals at an average of 24.2 per return. That mentality transfers over into his work after the catch in the open field.

Rather surprisingly, Ross was only “in space” (which is defined as a run after the catch attempt where a player can break a tackle) on 9.9 percent of his routes, which is under the two-year prospect average of 11 percent. Given his skill set, that could well be something that changes as a pro. However, when he did get his shots he made them count in the open field. Ross went down on first contact on 44.4 percent of his “in space” attempts, which is less often than the average college prospect charted. His multiple broken tackle rate was 22.2 percent of his “in space” attempts, good for 3rd best in the class.

Where we don’t get much exposure to Ross’ game is in contested catch situations. Indeed, over his Reception Perception sample, he only registered two contested catch attempts, one he caught and one he did not.

Naturally, Ross’ weight and smaller hands and arms lead to questions in contested situations and whether he’ll be able to win the ball in traffic. Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown have taken their games beyond what players of their frame normally do because they are both dominant at the catch point, consistently maintaining contested catch conversion rates over 75 to 80 percent in the last three years of Reception Perception charting. Ross may not be able to do that, or at least his college film left that question unanswered.

Yet, there is a positive to take from the fact that we rarely see Ross in contested situations if you’re willing to extrapolate the trail of this idea. Ross rarely finds himself in tight coverage because he’s routinely creating separation from the defenders covering him.

Success Rate vs. Coverage

In terms of Reception Perception’s primary metric success rate vs. coverage, which measures how often a receiver gets open on a route-by-route basis, John Ross is in rare company this season. He is one of just four receivers charted this year to score above the two-year prospect average in all four of success rate vs. man, zone, double and press coverage.

Ross’ 69.2 percent success rate vs. man coverage puts him at the 56th percentile among receivers charted over the last two years. His zone coverage 80 percent score is quite a bit more impressive, falling in the 71st percentile.

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One notable data point here for Ross is his 60.7 percent success rate vs. double coverage. Opposing defenses double-covered Ross on 28 routes in his Reception Perception sample, second only to Taywan Taylor among charted receivers this year. Despite that extra attention, Ross rose to the challenge with a success rate mark 14 points higher than the prospect average.

What most will be dying to know regarding Ross’ Reception Perception is how he performed against press coverage. Ross’ statistical production fell silent against Alabama in the college playoff series with just five catches for 28 yards. This exacerbated concerns about how the slight receiver works against press coverage. Those concerns can be dialed back a bit as Ross maintained a 73.2 percent success rate vs. press coverage, which was the fourth-best score recorded this year and falls above the 78th percentile.

Releasing from the line of scrimmage is just about quickness, footwork and technique as it is about size and strength. Size tends to carry far too much weight, or perhaps just creates too many assumptions when it comes to wide receiver evaluations. If a player doesn’t have a variation of clean release moves, opposing cornerbacks will jam them prior to their route no matter how tall they may be.

On the other side of the scale, small receivers can be some of the best against press coverage if their technique integrates well with their agile nature. You can’t jam what you can’t touch. John Ross has the ability to elude press defenders at the line of scrimmage enough to mitigate his lack of ideal size.

Route Data

Here’s where the fun begins with John Ross’ evaluation. We can examine his route charts to decipher if there is more to his game than just winning vertical with speed.

Red is below the two-year prospect average, green is above and yellow is within the average.

As to be expected, the farther away we get from the line of scrimmage the higher we find Ross’ route percentages as it relates to the two-year college average. He ran the slant, screen or flat route at a rate that was below the prospect average.

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It’s no surprise we see the corner and post route among the more popular routes for Ross as they are typically vertical-leaning patterns. The nine route was also expected to be high. In all honesty, seeing Ross ran the nine route (20.3 percent) at an average rate is a bit more of a shock. One would have expected it to be even higher given his burner reputation.

The more intermediate routes where Ross pops up with a rate above the two-year prospect average were the out (6.6 percent) and curl (18.1 percent). The curl, in particular, is key here. It was striking to see on film just how much cushion received from opposing defensive backs clearly terrified of giving up the deep ball. Ross is unlikely to get that in the NFL, but he’s already shown an understanding of how to sell the vertical route without tipping it with his eyes or head before snapping back to the quarterback on the curl or comeback. That will be how Ross makes a living beyond just a deep threat and amasses yardage in the short game.

With that in mind, it becomes even more important to see his success rate vs. coverage as it lends more credence to the idea that Ross functions well outside of just the bomb plays.

Starting with the negatives, Ross came in under the two-year prospect average in success rate vs. coverage on slant and post routes. Given his speed, quickness and strong technique, that was unexpected. It’s worth noting that neither his 70.4 percent success rate on posts or 74.2 percent on slants is all that terribly low, but the prospect average is particularly inflated on the slant pattern, in particular. 

Otherwise, Ross’ route success rate chart shows nothing but positives. His 62.2 percent success rate on nine routes quantifies his dangerous ability to get over the top. His 100 percent success rate on comebacks and 78.8 percent on curls help exemplify that skill to sell the vertical pattern before chopping his feet and turning back short.

Ross ran the out route at an above average rate and his 83.3 percent success rate is all the more impressive because of it. The out is a difficult pattern and requires the deception of keeping your head steady along with the cut at a sharp angle to earn separation. Ross shows he’s up to the task.

Moving Forward

We posed the question at the onset of this study as to what kind of small receiver John Ross really was. Is he the type of deep threat that only helps out in the vertical game or was there potential to reach out to the T.Y. Hilton-esque upper branches of the archetype?

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After taking in Ross’ Reception Perception results, we can conclusively say he has more to offer as a complete package in a small frame than just his deep game. He created separation at different levels of the field and his success rate vs. coverage shows a player who wins with detail and athleticism.

The on-field package is superb and something NFL teams salivate over. All that can stand in Ross’ way as a high-first round pick is a long and winding injury rap sheet, including multiple knee maladies and an upcoming surgery set for May. Those are major concerns and each team will have to weight them against a skill set that is quite simply, rare.

Heading into this weekend we already knew John Ross was fast. Yet, he showed us all we may have not truly known just how fast he was and put a 4.22 record-breaking time down to prove it. To the same point, perhaps you’d already seen enough on film to know that Ross was a better technician than credited and someone who could win at levels of the field. Seeing it play out in his Reception Perception results only serves to reinforce this reality.

If you’re interested in more Reception Perception analysis, make sure to visit our Reception Perception pages for college prospect evaluations and pre-order The Ultimate Draft Kit for access to 50 NFL players’ full data this summer. You can keep up with all of the work using the #ReceptionPerception hashtag on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Get full Reception Perception data and written evaluations by Matt Harmon on top 50 wide receivers for the 2017 NFL season in the 2017 Ultimate Draft Kit

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