- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Many believe it's a foregone conclusion that Carolina's Cam Newton will win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The draft's first overall pick has already thrown for 3,000 yards, including over 400 in his first two games.
But if you're talking about the most valuable rookie this year, Newton isn't the choice. It's Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. It's not even close.
In games that Green has started and finished, the Bengals are 7-2. They are in playoff contention because of Green leaping over defenders for passes. They are one game from having the best record in the AFC because of Green's clutch touchdowns.
For those who aren't convinced, watch Cincinnati's game against the Browns from last Sunday. Green only had three catches but all set up scores totaling 17 points.
His 24-yard catch led to the game-tying touchdown in the first quarter. His 35-yarder -- an underthrown pass that Green had to come back for -- came one play before the touchdown that got Cincinnati within 20-17 in the third quarter.
The critical blow came with the score tied at 20 with 68 seconds remaining and the Bengals facing third-and-eight. Green ended Cincinnati's two-game losing streak when he made a leaping grab over the middle and ran for a 51-yard play. That paved the way for the winning field goal in the Bengals' 23-20 victory.
For those who still aren't convinced, listen to coach Marvin Lewis' comments about Green.
“He is the best first-round draft pick that I’ve ever been around,” said Lewis, who has been around the likes of Ray Lewis in Baltimore. "He continues to amaze me every day."
Green's athleticism is what keeps defensive coordinators up at night. It seems like some throws are headed to the Ohio River and he soars to come down with the ball.
But it's his mindset that has rubbed off on teammates, especially late in games.
Take into account the situation surrounding his biggest catch of the season. It didn't matter that Green was lining up against the division's best cornerback, Cleveland's Joe Haden. It didn't matter that Green, who missed Sunday's game with a hyperextended knee, left himself vulnerable when he went airborne over the middle with three defenders in the area.
This fearless attitude has turned Green from a playmaker to a game-changer. In the Bengals' wins this season, he has 29 catches for 556 yards and four touchdowns. In their losses, he has 15 receptions for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
"Whenever my number’s called, I’m going to try and make the play," Green said. "When that ball is in the air, I feel it’s mine."
It's this fearless attitude that Green and the Bengals need to have for the final five regular-season games, the first of which comes Sunday at Pittsburgh.
"You can take chances with him," quarterback Andy Dalton said of Green. "If I put the ball around him, he will go and make a play on it. A.J. is a special player.”
Others haven't been as impressed. In early November, Seahawks rookie cornerback Richard Sherman called Green "one of the most overrated receivers out there." Last Sunday, Browns safety Mike Adams described Green as "OK" and said "I'm not ready to take him to the Pro Bowl yet."
These opinions don't hold up when analyzing the numbers put up by Green. He's on pace to make 64 catches for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns. This will go down as one of the best rookie seasons by any NFL wide receiver.
Green would more than double the amount of receptions that Reggie Wayne and Brandon Marshall had as first-year players. He would finish with more receiving yards than Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson as well as more touchdowns than Calvin Johnson in their rookie seasons.
"I just want to be the best that I can," Green said. "They didn't draft me No. 4 for no reason."
Green showed his promise in his NFL debut. He put the Bengals ahead to stay with a 41-yard touchdown catch from Bruce Gradkowski on a quick-snap play that caught the Browns off guard. It was the longest game-winning touchdown catch in league history by a rookie playing in his team's first game.
He followed that up with 10 catches in Denver. A month later, he became the first Bengals player in 23 years with two receptions of 40 yards or more in one game, which happened to be a comeback win against the Bills.
It's probably not coincidence that the Bengals' last two losses came when Green was out for a majority of the game. Cincinnati failed in its comeback attempts against Pittsburgh and Baltimore without Green, but the Bengals were able to rally in the fourth quarter against the Browns with Green.
"He plays big, particularly down the field," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He has great top end speed, which also creates problems down the field. He has unique short area quickness for a guy of his stature. He has a lot of special talents that warrant special consideration."
What stands out about Green is that he can be a special player without needing to feel special. He hasn't changed his last name to dieciocho. He doesn't have elaborate touchdown celebrations like shooting himself in the leg. And he isn't afraid to take a hit for a big-time catch like Dwayne Bowe.
Some might argue that Green isn't the best offensive player on his team. And it's true that Dalton has been solid. But Green has been spectacular.
"He’s a good guy and makes big plays," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "He does it every week in practice and it translates to the game. That’s what good pro football players are able to do. He’s the rookie of the year by far.”