Every year the NFL draft witnesses a few prospects fall in ways that some might consider unimaginable. This happens for a number of reasons ranging from the media not being on the same page as the league, to immaturity and off-field issues, to injuries that teams within the league have flagged.
This year was no exception, with the likes of Nakobe Dean, David Ojabo, Damone Clark falling out of Day 1 and late into Day Two, and even further into Day Three for Clark. All of these players had what teams were classifying as significant injuries (pectoral strain, torn achilles, and herniated disk respectively), and felt their value was lowered due to the injury concerns.
One player that fell significantly due to injury concerns is one who was once viewed as a locked-in first round pick, and possibly the best available at his position: Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross.
Ross burst onto the scene as a freshman, finishing the 2018 season as Clemson’s leading receiver despite being on the same offense as Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow, and Amari Rodgers. He was by far the most efficient receiver the Tigers had on the roster, and was a true standout among the group. In 2019 his efficiency dropped, but he still performed extremely well with 66 receptions for 856 yards and 8 touchdowns.
During spring practices in 2020 it was revealed that Ross had Klippel-Feil syndrome, which is a congenital condition in the spine where vertebrae are fused together. This condition and his recovery from the surgery to repair it would cost Ross his entire 2020 season. The surgery involved the complete removal of a disc in his neck and stabilization of the joint. He would return to play in the 2021 season, but he was not his former self in terms of production.
No player diagnosed with Klippel-Feil syndrome has ever been cleared for play at the NFL level, due to the risk of a catastrophic injury. According to Dr. Jessica Flynn, “because the flexibility and shape of the neck [has been] altered, even minor neck trauma could cause pressure on the spinal cord.”
With this in mind, one has to wonder why he was ever cleared to return to play at Clemson. Even with the advances of modern medical technology, head and spinal cord injuries are still among the most dangerous and career threatening within football. If even minor trauma can cause catastrophic injury to the spinal cord, then continuing to play for Clemson was undoubtedly against Ross’ best interests.
In regards to Ross going undrafted this past weekend, Dr. Flynn unsurprisingly said: “I didn’t think he would get drafted, sadly.”
Earlier today the Kansas City Chiefs signed Ross to their 90-man roster, and will at minimum be giving him a shot at his NFL dreams despite his injury risk. Whether that leads to him being cut due to concerns about his injury or making the 53-man roster when the season starts, he at least has the chance to make history and be the first with this condition to be cleared for NFL play.