- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- OK, so the question above isn't quite the one ESPN Insider Matt Williamson posed in a piece Monday morning, but judging from his answer, it's clear he holds Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green in high regard.
As he tried to rank the "No. 1 receivers" in the league, Williamson put Green near the top of the list, just below Calvin Johnson, the freakish Detroit Lions receiver who ought to head any current-day list that ranks wideouts. Also close to Green at the top of the list are a couple of tight ends who have revolutionized their position and changed the importance of using big-bodied players at the physical position as pass-catchers.
In compiling his list, which you can read here, Williamson was trying to consider players who have the ability to separate from man coverage, and who can find soft zones easily. He also thought about pass-catchers who were strong, fast, athletic and "played big." What does "play big" mean? Typically it's a term that matches taller or more physical receivers and tight ends. Green isn't always the most physical player, but his 6-foot-4 frame makes him tough for shorter cornerbacks to defend.
Williamson also was looking for receivers who were productive despite being double-teamed, and ones who exhibited each of these characteristics on a consistent basis.
In all, Williamson found 14 pass-catchers in the league who he felt met this criteria.
Personally, I don't feel that Green's production versus double teams and his play against elite cornerbacks makes him quite as elite as my esteemed colleague does. If we're using those as metrics to quantify consistently strong play, then Green has to perform better than he did against the Joe Hadens and Aqib Talibs of the league. He's always struggled against Haden, and had few in the first month of last season because so many teams began the year double-teaming him. Against Talib and the Patriots Oct. 5, Green caught five passes for 61 yards. It was the third straight game a team had played him incredibly tough with tight man-to-man coverages and occasional double teams.
When Marvin Jones began emerging as a solid No. 2 receiving option later in October, teams started realizing that they couldn't focus so much of their attention on Green. They also realized they had to compensate for the two-man act the Bengals had at tight end with Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, and rookie running back Giovani Bernard was becoming a true playmaking option, too. In time, the weapons around Green freed him up to make the same athletic plays that he had been accustomed to making.
Well, almost all of them. Green still will take a few shots this offseason for the way he failed to get underneath a perfectly catchable deep ball late in the Bengals' wild-card round playoff game against San Diego in January. Had he not slowed down and instead caught the ball, he likely would have taken glided easily into the end zone, trimming the Chargers' lead to 20-17. After the incompletion, though, the Bengals continued to struggle moving the ball offensively in the game's final six minutes. Defensively, they gave up one more touchdown and were unable to come back on the victorious Chargers.
Part of being a No. 1 receiver is making big plays at big moments. That catch could have been huge for the postseason win-starved Bengals.
Those criticisms don't mean he's not among the NFL's pass-catching elite. They just mean that he still has a little work to do, in my opinion, in order to fully earn the title of fourth-best pass-catcher in the league.
Aside from those criticisms, Green certainly has the physical tools and the smarts that you want in a top-end receiver. His regulation-ending 51-yard touchdown reception off a Hail Mary deflection at Baltimore perfectly showed all of that. It was a big play that forced overtime in a game it appeared the Bengals had lost in the first quarter. If we see more plays like that from Green on an even more consistent basis -- and with the intense Hue Jackson now his offensive coordinator, you have to imagine more of that consistency is forthcoming -- then, yes, by all means, he deserves to have his name bandied about with the likes of Johnson's.