When it comes to returning punts, Bengals' John Ross is every bit a rookie

CINCINNATI -- John Ross is fearless, fast and smart. The wide receiver can make defenders pay with his 4.22 40-yard dash speed.

But when he lines up to field a punt, he's just like any other rookie trying to learn a new position.

"It's not perfect," Ross said. "In my opinion, it's not even good. But it's getting better."

The Cincinnati Bengals are experimenting with the idea of making Ross a punt returner, hoping his freakish speed could turn into something amazing.

The team last returned a punt for a touchdown in 2012. A new burst of life is badly needed at the position, and Ross has the qualities to do that.

Punt returners often field the ball with little cushion from the cover team, so they must be able to progress without hesitation even with defenders in their face.

Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said punt returners are usually smaller in size and elusive enough to make guys miss. And of course, they must be fast.

"He's got to have great judgment," Simmons said. "A punt returner has to have great hands, the ability to read the ball in flight, and actually a punt returner has got to have great quickness. Quickness is the first thing you look for in a punt returner and it's lateral quickness."

The 5-11, 190-pound Ross might have those things, but he's racing the clock because he didn't have the luxury of learning in the spring with the other rookies. While they were in the classroom, he was recovering from shoulder surgery and finishing up school at Washington.

He's getting a month-long crash course now, but if he hasn't progressed enough by the time the season starts, they just might put the experiment on hold for a while.

"Our one goal on a punt return play is to have the ball at the end of the play, that's the most important part," Simmons said. "If I can't guarantee to the team that's going to happen, I can't put him back there, regardless of what physical ability he's got."

Simmons compared it to putting training wheels on a bike. Ross isn't quite ready to have them taken off, but he's getting there.

"John has made huge progress, and he's being coached in punt return technique," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "His comfort underneath the ball is way better than it was."

With Ross' speed, it's almost surprising this wasn't tried before. The idea of making Ross a punt returner at Washington never really came to fruition after he hurt his knee prior to the 2015 season.

While Ross sat out the season recovering, teammate Dante Pettis led the Pac-12 in return average and was named a second-team All-American. Ross happily conceded the spot, focusing on kick returns while Pettis went on to score career five touchdowns.

"[Pettis] is an amazing punt returner," Ross said. "He stayed there. ... I was happy about [it], because, to see him come in, and be so talented at that, he was already a vet when I got back."

It's easy to assume Ross' kickoff return skills translate over as a punt returner. However, the art of returning a punt is a bit more complicated than it seems.

"When you see a kickoff in the air, you know where it's coming and you can set up ... It comes right to me," Ross said.

Learning to field punts safely, and when to let them bounce, is half the battle.

"Kick returner, you know you're going to have time and space to catch the ball," said Bengals wideout Alex Erickson, who returned kickoffs and punts as a rookie. "Punt returning, sometimes you've got to fair-catch because the cover team is down there and then sometimes it's a broken play, guys are every which way depending on what they're doing and how our guys are blocking them..

"It's just a little more freelance ... you've just go to use your instincts, read the blocks, and it's not always going to be the way it's drawn up."

Ross played out that dilemma in the Bengals' first scrimmage of training camp. He fielded a punt at the 3-yard line when he should have let it bounce into the end zone for a touchback. If that were a game, that could have meant a 17-yard difference.

"We know he can run with it," Simmons said. "We know he has a ton of natural ability, but it's all the decision making, when to do this, when to do that, how to handle this part in a certain situation, certain time in the game. Those are all things that are completely new to him, so he is super raw."

Ross may be a self-described perfectionist, but he's doing his best to trust the process. And even he says he's finally happy with how it's going."

"Alex Erickson and Tyler Boyd, they said 'When we got here it was the same way, we dropped a few so it was pretty tough and you'll get it,'" Ross said. "And they were right, and I'm starting to get it. Like I said, I'm still not good at it, but I'm getting there."