By Tuesday, there wasn’t much of a surprise when it was reported that the Kansas City Chiefs were keeping wide receiver Justyn Ross on the initial 53-man roster. Anyone paying attention to training camp and the preseason saw this coming for weeks.
It’s still a monumental moment for multiple reasons. For one, Ross is finally living out a dream that felt stolen from him when he was diagnosed with a congenital fusion of two vertebrae in his neck during the 2020 season at Clemson. He had to battle through two surgeries to get back on a football field, let alone play in the NFL.
Through a less important view, Ross’ inclusion with the team is a luxury to the Chiefs’ offense. After years of emphasizing speed and versatility with their corps of wide receivers, Ross is breaking that mold. He is 6’4” without notable breakaway speed, but the skills he can provide could provide a changeup that opponents haven’t had to worry about.
I looked at Ross’ preseason tape to break down how he can help the Chiefs’ offense in 2023.
Isolated on the outside
Ross has lined up as an outside receiver this preseason for 92% of his snaps; he only recorded five snaps aligned in the slot.
That aligns with his skill set: he is a big target who can go up and get a ball over a leaping cornerback on the outside. However, he showed off more than his enormous frame in the preseason.
It's official: Justyn Ross has earned a role in the #Chiefs' offense. He made the 53— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 30, 2023
That role is going to feature Ross isolated on the outside, 1v1 w/ a CB. These double moves from the preszn show how sudden he can be in/out of breaks, even if he misses landmark on 2nd one pic.twitter.com/XnKcCkFxln
On this third-down play (with quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the game), Ross runs a whip route: he fakes a slant route, then suddenly pivots back towards the sideline for a quick pass. The Chiefs have used their most explosive, dynamic playmakers on these routes in the past. In this first clip, Ross executes it very smoothly.
The second clip shows Ross creating separation on a double move, an out-and-up route he sells very well. It’s another impressive showing of his suddenness in and out of a route break. The play ends in an incompletion because Ross does not bend back toward the corner of the end zone as he should in this scenario, which is very coachable. That footwork, at his size, is not.
The #Chiefs QBs have loved throwing quick game to Ross on 2nd & shorts this preseason— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 30, 2023
Makes sense. His big frame gives them a big target to hit, but he also isn't going to be an easy takedown 1v1 for a CB.
Simple way to move the chains if he has the right matchup pic.twitter.com/YcRoety2L7
On the outside, Ross has also been a constant target for quick passes in scenarios where the team doesn’t need a full 10 yards to convert. All three of these completions came on second down, and all three turned into first downs after Ross secured the catch and quickly got upfield.
His large frame makes him a reliable target for the quarterback in that situation, but it also makes him a hard player for a cornerback to bring down once he has the ball.
Creating open space
The Chiefs’ pass game is primarily about getting players into open space. Ross’ skills don’t pair with the traditional ways that happens in this offense, but he has the quickness to create space when he needs it.
His jumpball TD was visually appealing, but Ross' score from Preszn Wk1 might be more encouraging— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 30, 2023
He clearly understands how to manipulate the LB in his hook/curl zone. Ross hides his intention until he's in the LB's blind spot
A hard cut in prevents the S from getting there pic.twitter.com/Kb2T2QY1P6
On his first preseason touchdown, Ross makes the throwing window as wide as possible for the quarterback with his route running. As he gets vertical, he does not show the direction of his route until he is past the linebacker, so he cannot cheat underneath.
Once he’s in the linebacker’s blindspot, he cuts very hard inside and shallow, creating the maximum amount of space between him and the safety towards his side. If the route is run any deeper, the safety can likely recover in time to break it up.
Ross' tempo & feel for releases against man coverage have been impressive in his first NFL action— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 30, 2023
1. Love the strong move back inside to beat inside leverage
2. Shove within 5 yds to create separation on crosser
3. Quicker release, sells inside enough to win on corner pic.twitter.com/53XCSusiO4
He had a handful of examples showing his work as a route runner. You can see him change the tempo of his route releases, using physicality off the line when he needs to — and then utilizing finesse when appropriate. He combines that with strong hands at the top of routes, allowing him to get off physical coverage and into space.
Ross had already done plenty of impressing through the first two weeks of the preseason, but we finally saw the contested-catch ability he was flashing all training camp in Week 3.
The ease with which Ross turns in his route, skys for the ball and brings it down with a strong grip is a big sign of things to come. The Chiefs don’t throw many goal-line fades, but they have trusted tight end Jody Fortson as a big target in the red zone a lot.
Fortson is currently on injured reserve with a season-ending injury, so that responsibility could naturally be filled by Ross — and may be enhanced. There’s only so much Fortson can do as a tight end; the red-zone package for Ross could be even more expansive.
The bottom line
Ross is not going to succeed like typical Chiefs receivers have. He does not have the burning speed that naturally brings big plays with it. He is going to have to win without yards after catch, without designed jet sweeps and without manufactured touches like quick screens.
What he will do is line up as the isolated wide receiver on the backside of the Chiefs’ 3x1 formations at times. From there, he can work on cornerbacks individually while the rest of the defense floats toward the strength of the formation.
Mahomes can look back toward Ross if the primary routes on a play don’t look good. That can be a fade pattern, a quick slant, a comeback route — really anything where Ross can overwhelm the cornerback before or after the catch. That extends into the red zone.
It is likely to be a more situational role at first, but it will be exciting to watch Ross progress into more as the season — and his career — goes on.