KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs have an idea when it comes to their expectations for their first-round draft picks, defensive back Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis, at their rookie minicamp this weekend.
The same goes for the rest of their draft class, most of whom they scouted and interviewed on numerous occasions.
But there also are some intriguing rookies who were not selected in last week’s draft that could carve out a roster spot with the defending AFC West champions, beginning with Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross, a once-budding star whose career was threatened by a congenital spine disorder that ultimately required surgery.
“Like a lot of these guys,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said, “whether you’re a first-round pick or second-round pick, you’ve got to come in here and learn the playbook. You’ve got to have confidence in the coaching staff to execute your assignments. You have to have the confidence in Pat (Mahomes) for him to trust you to execute your assignment, and if he can do that, I’d say talent-wise, as long as he stays healthy, he’ll have a shot.”
The tall, lanky wide receiver rose to stardom as a freshman when he helped the Tigers win the national championship, catching 301 yards worth of passes and four TD throws in wins over Notre Dame and Alabama. And he followed up with a sophomore season in which he had 865 yards receiving and eight touchdowns.
Then came the hit from a linebacker two years ago that left Ross feeling tingling in his arms.
He was taken for tests to his spine and neck, which is required by the program for any such injury, and thought nothing more of it. In fact, Ross was feeling good enough a couple days later to return to practice. But the tests revealed something entirely unexpected — a condition called Klippel-Feil syndrome that causes the fusion of spinal bones.
Several surgeons said Ross would never play football again, but he refused to accept their opinions. Eventually, he got in touch with spinal specialist Dr. David Okonkwo at the University of Pittsburgh. It was Okonkwo, who is also the Steelers’ neurosurgeon, who performed a surgery in June 2020 that removed a disc to free up space in the spinal cord.
Even after the procedure, Ross wasn’t sure football was still in the cards. He had to wait for the bones to heal, sitting out the entire 2021 season. It took almost a year after the surgery before he was cleared to play.
Ross wound up catching 46 passes for 514 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Those are numbers that would usually get a player drafted. But along with his spinal condition, Ross dealt with a foot injury last season, then tested poorly at the Clemson pro day, causing many teams to take him off their board entirely.
Then the Chiefs came along.
Veach has a good working relationship with Ross’ agent, Tory Dandy, who also represents former Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins. The two stayed in touch as the draft went on, and when nobody selected Ross, the Chiefs offered him a free-agent deal that was too good to pass up: Not only would he get to catch passes from Mahomes in a pass-happy offense, Ross has a good shot to make the team given the status of the wide receiver corps.
The Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill before the draft, and they lost Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson in free agency. And while they drafted Skyy Moore in the second round and signed veterans JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in free agency, there remains an opportunity for Ross to earn a spot on the roster as a rookie.
“I know our docs at (The University of Kansas Health System) spent a lot of time talking to the experts that dealt with Justyn, and he’s cleared,” Veach said. “I think really when you take away the neck situation, and again, our docs did a great job of exhausting all of the information, I think for me it’s a little easier on how I operate.”
There are plenty of undrafted free agents in a similar situation as Ross this weekend, trying to earn a coveted spot on a team that has hosted four consecutive AFC championship games. But few offer the proven ability at a position of need for a team that continues to have Super Bowl aspirations heading into next season.
“It’s really a combination of talent, being smart, staying on top of the training – and that means when you’re away from the facility, too,” Veach said. “Like a lot of these young guys, if he does those things, given the talent that he has, he should be able to come here and potentially contribute.”