If I had been doing a 2021 NFL Mock Draft a week ago, Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross would have easily been a first round pick. In all honesty, Ross would have been a top-20 pick. But, a wrench was thrown in Ross and Clemson’s plans when an x-ray following the team’s final practice before the Coronavirus pandemic revealed a potentially career threatening, spinal injury. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney referred to the injury as a “congenital fusion.” Ross has been unknowingly living with it since birth.
With Ross out, the college football landscape is somewhat altered, but the injury’s biggest effect may be seen in the NFL Draft.
The first, and most obvious domino will be seen with Ross’s inevitable fall and the wide receiver class of 2021. Ross broke out as a freshman in 2018, putting up over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, on only 46 receptions, en route to a National Championship. Ross solidified himself as an NFL prospect in his sophomore season, still being productive as he elevated into the team’s second receiver, catching 66 passes, for 865 yards and eight touchdowns. With stat sheet stuffers, Hunter Renfrow and Tee Higgins both leaving their college glory in back-to-back years for the NFL, Ross was expected to be in for his best year yet.
The initial thought around Ross by many evaluators was that he was a better prospect than Higgins, who went 33rd overall in this past NFL Draft. He was also the sixth receiver taken in what was thought of as a historically deep receiver class. With LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase being the clear cut no.1 wide receiver, barring something unforeseen, Ross did have a good case for the second receiver spot. While it’s early to predict, if Ross plays again, he will face a hard decision of going to the pros or staying another year at Clemson in hopes of proving he’s still an elite talent. If Ross goes to the NFL, I find it hard to believe he’s taken in the first three rounds, considering his medical history and the absence of a year of film. But, his potentially elite talent could be intriguing enough for a team to take a risk on. A day three selection of Ross would be reminiscent of the Las Vegas Raiders’ selection of Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst in 2018.
After a dominant college career in Ann Arbor, Hurst was expected to be a first-round-pick, but a potentially dangerous heart condition was discovered at the NFL Combine, causing him to slip to the fifth round. The condition caused Hurst to be taken off many team’s draft boards, but didn’t deter the Raiders who traded up to take him. At the time of the selection the Raiders were lambasted by the media and labeled as “irresponsible” by many for the selection. A potentially similar situation may have to play out for Ross to hear his name called on draft day, but it’s still very early to predict his NFL future, if there is still one to pursue.
Swinney was quoted saying he’s unaware of any player who has undergone surgery for this issue and returned. With Ross out, expect players like the University of Minnesota’s Rashon Bateman, Purdue’s Rondale Moore and Alabama’s Devonta Smith to make themselves the clear-cut second-best receiver in the draft.
Ross’s injury could also hamper the first overall pick, especially since it is expected to be his teammate, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has been an expected top-five pick since the end of his freshman year. While Lawrence is currently my top ranked QB in the 2021 Draft, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network made it clear on May 26, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance is nipping at Lawrence’s heels.
“Based off the three games I watched, this kid was the most impressive of the three quarterbacks,” Jeremiah said, comparing Lance to not only Lawrence, but Ohio State’s Justin Fields. “But just off the small sample size, I thought this kid played better than Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, in the three games I watched.”
Jeremiah noted that Lawrence will be in “poll position” to be the first quarterback taken in the draft. But these comments were made days before the news about Ross broke.
With Ross out, running back Travis Ettiene is Clemson’s leading returning receiver. The two most productive receivers from 2019 who will be back for this season are Amari Rodgers, a senior who has never broken 575 yards in a single season at Clemson, and sophomore Joe Ngata, who showed flashes as a freshman, but his inexperience, is a question as he could be asked to be one of the team’s primary receivers.
We have seen plenty of quarterbacks have their film hindered by the team around them; Daniel Jones and Josh Allen are two obvious examples of this. But, is it possible that Lawrence, who is used to being surrounded by NFL talent, could have his performance drop just enough for Lance or Fields to surpass him as the first quarterback taken? With plenty of question marks, only time will tell. But the only thing known right now is that Clemson will be missing a supreme talent when the next college football season rolls around.