KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Justyn Ross didn’t do much to distinguish himself at a three-day Kansas City Chiefs rookie camp that concluded Monday. But in perhaps the most important respect of all, Ross’ camp was a huge success.
The former Clemson wide receiver, who joined the Chiefs last week after signing as an undrafted free agent, made it to an NFL practice field and competed.
Such modest prospects once looked unlikely for Ross, who missed a collegiate season in 2020 after being diagnosed with a spinal condition and then was limited all of last season with a stress fracture in his left foot.
“Just get my foot in the door and try to make plays,” Ross said of his goals for the weekend. “A lot of hard work, just putting in the time for real. Just trying to get back to the normal me.”
What Ross referred to as the “normal me” was the way he performed early in his college career. He had 46 receptions for 1,000 yards at Clemson as a freshman and followed that with 66 catches for 865 yards as a sophomore. At the time, he was considered a potential first-round pick when he became eligible for the draft.
Then in 2020, Ross took a big hit in spring practice and during the subsequent medical exam was found to have a congenital fusion in his spine. He was told at the time by doctors his football career was in jeopardy.
He later had surgery to alleviate the problem, and it went well enough that he returned to play last season. But in part because of his foot injury, he was unable to produce the numbers he had earlier in his career. Ross caught 46 passes for 514 yards and three touchdowns during the 2021 campaign.
“He’s kind of feeling himself out a little bit here, having been hurt the past couple years,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He was knocking the rust off here, [but] you can see the skill.”
Reid said the Chiefs would place no limitations on Ross, who is scheduled to be a full participant when they begin offseason practice for the full squad later in May. General manager Brett Veach said after Ross’ signing that Chiefs doctors spent ample time going over Ross’ medical condition and had cleared him to play.
“I’ve always said our [doctors] are on the more conservative side,” Veach said. “Our docs did a good job exhausting all the information. For me, it’s a little bit easier on how I operate. I know how good our medical staff is. … If they tell me yes, I feel good. If they tell me no, I don’t try to become a doctor all of a sudden and try to say, ‘Well, this team said this.’ No. If our doctors say good, we’re good.”
Ross joined the Chiefs at a time of transition for their wide receivers. They traded Tyreek Hill and lost two other top wideouts — Byron Pringle and DeMarcus Robinson — from last season in free agency. They return Mecole Hardman, signed JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling as free agents and drafted Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore in the second round.
But with nobody’s role yet established, Ross could claim some playing time with a strong showing in camp.
“Talentwise, as long as he stays healthy, he’ll have a shot,” Veach said. “It will come down to him and how he handles the playbook and being moved around [to different positions] and staying healthy and being diligent in regard to looking ahead to preventative things he can do for his body.”
For now, just being with the Chiefs and participating is good enough for Ross. He indicated he was disappointed in not being drafted, saying he was hoping to be selected somewhere in the seven rounds but thought going undrafted was more likely.
And at this point, it’s more about taking advantage of the opportunity for playing time.
“Of course, I’m ready to prove everybody wrong, but I’m trying to fill my spot and play my part on the team, just see what I can do,” Ross said.