Jabrill Peppers got his first look at what John Ross could bring to the Giants during a drill for kickoff returns on one of the first days of training camp.
"I was back there with him," Peppers said of waiting in line to receive the football. "He was there. And then he wasn’t."
It wasn’t quite a disappearing act, but it was close. Ross quickly demonstrated what is the defining element of his skill set — elite speed — by taking the football and zipping the length of the field for a would-be touchdown at an impressively blazing pace.
That’s what the Giants had in mind when they signed Ross, a former first-round pick of the Bengals, as a free-agent wide receiver in the offseason.
"You know the old adage, ‘Speed kills,’ " coach Joe Judge said.
Of course, that’s what the Bengals thought, too, when they drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 2017. Injuries kept him from breaking out; in four years in Cincinnati, he played in only 27 games with 20 starts and had only 51 catches. He was dangerous when he had the ball in his hands — 10 of his 51 catches resulted in touchdowns — but that didn’t happen often enough.
"My story is obviously out there," Ross said. "I think my biggest thing isn’t my ability, it’s my availability and me being healthy. You can tell when I’m not healthy, you can see when things aren’t going right, and I think that’s my biggest thing. I haven’t played 16 games yet and I’m going on my fifth year. I think that says a lot and that’s a big deal."
Now he’s hoping he can stay healthy enough to use that speed on a more regular basis.
Ross is not a lock to make the roster. He’s competing in a crowded field of wide receivers that has gotten thicker since he signed early in free agency, before the team landed Kenny Golladay in free agency and Kadarius Toney in the first round of the draft. But even among those big names, Ross has stood out.
"I’ve seen a lot of things in terms of how he’s working and producing on the field and there’s been a lot of encouraging things to build on," Judge said. "Obviously he has elite speed and obviously he’s a very good athlete.
But there’s a lot of fast guys. I mean, over in Tokyo there’s a lot of guys that are handing batons off to each other who can’t help you on the field. I think John’s definitely got a skill set where he does a good job of combining that speed and athleticism with football instincts."
Speed is a tool Ross has had all his life. He said he remembers his first football practice as a very young kid.
"We’re doing sprints and I’m just outsprinting guys," he said.
It goes back past there, even.
"Just being outside, being in the neighborhood playing with all the kids, we used to play a lot of games like freeze tag and stuff," he said. "I always felt like I would outrun kids. It was always kind of like that."
In a way, it still is. Especially when the football is coming in his direction, as it was at Giants camp when he was working on those kickoff returns.
"I just think to myself, ‘Go have fun, go be yourself, go be the person that got you here,’ " he said of what he thinks as the ball is headed his way, knowing there probably isn’t anyone on the field as fast as he is.
It becomes like those games of freeze tag when he was growing up.
"Absolutely," he said. "Running away from people trying to get to my destination."
Notes & quotes: Kadarius Toney seems to be inching closer to his on-field debut with the Giants this training camp. The first-round draft pick has sat out every workout thus far after first being listed on the COVD-19/reserve list and then, since being cleared early last week, working on the side to reestablish his fitness post-virus. "We’re going to start phasing him in more and more," Judge said of the wide receiver on Saturday night . . . The Giants players were off on Sunday and will return to the field on Monday. Tuesday will be their first day in full pads . . . Judge said LG Shane Lemieux is "day-to-day" with the knee injury he suffered on Thursday, but he’s more likely to miss a few weeks of action . . . On his first day back after passing a physical and being activated from PUP, potential starting right tackle Matt Peart was splitting first-team reps with Nate Solder at Saturday’s jog-through practice in Newark. "To get a day like this was really valuable for him to come back on Monday and be able to practice at high intensity and full speed," Judge said.