A.J. Green quietly primed to erupt this year

June, 13, 2012
6/13/12
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A.J. GreenFrank Victores/US PresswireCincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is hoping to build on a strong rookie season.
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green is the next Calvin Johnson. Just as important to the Bengals, he's not the next Chad Ochocinco.

With few words and many hours of hard work, Green is primed to take that next step and join the elite wide receivers in this league. He just doesn't need a reality show to announce it. Or his own news network.

Green out-leaped and outran defenders to put up better rookie numbers than Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, and he did so without a full offseason. Now, as the Bengals conclude their spring workouts this week, he's watching film to improve his game. He's talking (well, it's more like listening) to coaches about refining his route running. He's even going to work out with Fitzgerald next month to pick up some pointers.

There's no diva qualities with Green. It's all about desire and dedication. That's a scary combination considering he has everything you want in a playmaking wide receiver. Speed, check. Size, check. Athleticism and aggressiveness, check and check. Work ethic, a big check.

"He has tremendous ability and he never says a word," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "Every time he watches film, he envisions himself getting better. He envisions himself doing it better than he did it the last time. That’s the key element of him. There’s not a bit of satisfaction in what he’s doing."

Green's debut was extremely impressive. The fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft led all NFL rookies with 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. His 11 catches of 35 yards or more were the most in the league and the most by an NFL rookie since Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14 in 1998. As a result, Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003.

His encore would be scintillating if he follows the path of Johnson and Fitzgerald. In their second seasons, Fitzgerald caught 103 passes for 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns while Johnson produced 79 receptions for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those are realistic numbers for Green in 2012.

When talking about where he ranks in the NFL, Green simply says he'll let his play do the talking. Fortunately, his teammates and coaches are more than happy to talk about Green, too.

"He’s by far the best receiver I’ve guarded," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said.

Does he expect Green's name to be mentioned with the likes of the elite receivers this year? "His name should be up there already," Jones said. "All you have to do is watch him."

Lewis even referred to Green as the best receiver in the NFL on Tuesday, before he quickly qualified it by saying "one of the best."

The moment that defined Green last season was a leaping catch for a 51-yard gain in the final minute that set up the winning field goal over the Cleveland Browns. His clutch play as a rookie shows his importance in the offense. It's not about the number of catches. It's about the significance of them.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, 44 of Green's 65 catches (68 percent) came when the score was within seven points. That ranked 10th among all wide receivers last season.

"When the game is on the line, I want to be the go-to guy," Green said. "I feel like that separates the good from the great receivers."

Part of what separates the good from the great players is their influence on teammates. With veterans Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell gone, Green has become the clear leader of a wide receiver group that averages 2.2 years of experience.

As you would expect from his low-key personality, Green is a leader by example by being the first one in every drill and running it at full speed. According to the Bengals' official website, the receivers say: Whatever A.J. does is exactly what you want to do.

This represents the most drastic difference between Green, the team's current No. 1 receiver, and Ochocinco, the team's all-time leading receiver.

Ochocinco has been described by his former Bengals teammates as a performer who never "shepherded" teammates.

"A.J. is the opposite," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "Not only is he super talented, but it means a lot to him to be an example [to teammates]. I think he takes that to heart."

While Green is now a leader, that doesn't mean he has stopped learning. The emphasis of this offseason has been to grow as a player.

He is becoming more patient in his route running (he acknowledged he ran most routes at 100 miles per hour last season), which should generate more big plays. He is also learning all three wide receiver spots (split end, flanker and slot), which will allow him to move all over the field and make it more difficult for defenses to double him all the time.

“A.J. is one of those guys who is so gifted athletically, and you find ways to get him the ball," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "Whether it’s early on in the game or the end or in crunch time, you just try and find ways to get him the ball. Once he’s got it, he can do a lot with it. He’s just that kind of receiver."

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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