In the NFL, there's a general rule of thumb that it takes a wide receiver three years to reach his potential. As with almost every rule, there are exceptions, and the Ravens will meet one of those exceptions Monday night when the Cincinnati Bengals visit M&T Bank Stadium.
A.J. Green forged a record-setting campaign in 2011 after being selected fourth overall in the NFL draft earlier in the year. Following a path blazed by Randy Moss formerly of the Minnesota Vikings and Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans, Green headlined a strong group of first-year receivers that included the Ravens' Torrey Smith and the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones.
Green said bucking that three-year trend was unintentionalbut entirely achievable.
"I don't listen to all that that it takes you whatever [number of years to develop]," Green said. "I feel like if you are willing to work [and] you're ready to put in the time to be great, who says you can't come out there and have a great season your first year? So that's what I did."
ESPN NFL analyst Eric Allen said not all wide receivers are created equally. He cited the San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree who entered the 2009 draft with as much promise as Green, but has taken longer to progress.
"On the other side of that, you have guys like Randy Moss and A.J. Green who came in and physically, these guys are so good that it wasn't a hurdle that they really had to overcome," the former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback said. "Now it's just the ability to be able to digest the playbook and understand the game. These two guys were so athletically gifted that they were able to step onto the field and immerse themselves into the playbook. And once the coaching staff and quarterback realized that they could put him in a situation where he was one-on-one, he pretty much dominated his opponent. I think that's the kind of special guy that A.J. Green is."
Last season was an eye-opening experience for Green, who led all rookies in catches (65) and receiving yards (1,057), ranked second among first-year players in touchdown receptions (seven), and tied with the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson and the New York Giants' Victor Cruz for the most catches of at least 35 yards (11). He became the first rookie receiver to be voted to the Pro Bowl since 2003 when Anquan Boldin went as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Green one of the top receivers in the league, and cornerback Lardarius Webb used Calvin Johnson's "Megatron" nickname to describe Green's big-play potential.
"No matter where you are on the field, he can score," Webb said. "He can catch the ball no matter who is on him and no matter how many are on him. He's like a mini Megatron or something."
WBAL Radio analyst Qadry Ismail said Green reminds him of former St. Louis Rams wide receiver Torry Holt, the seven-time Pro Bowler who strung together a record six consecutive seasons of 1,300 yards. But whereas Holt was listed at 6 feet and 200 pounds, Green is 6-4 and 207 pounds.
"I think tall guys sometimes lose a little bit of the art of running routes because it's harder for them to get in and out of their breaks," said Ismail, a former Ravens wide receiver. "But I think he's right on pace because he's a good, strong route runner, which says an awful lot about him because he didn't have other guys to learn from at that position. But he's put himself in a position to set himself up for success."
That success can also be a target, according to Allen who said opposing defenses will pay more attention to Green and look for vulnerabilities or strategies to render him ineffective.
"The coordinators, the defensive back coaches and the players are going to be more aware of where he is in certain situations and they're not going to allow him to line up and play man-to-man," Allen said. "They're always going to have a linebacker running underneath him or have a corner press him with a safety on top. If you're smart, you're always going to try to make him to avoid one or two defenders before he can get to his comfort zone."
One of the few opponents that denied Green much enjoyment last season was the Ravens. After he sat out the first meeting on Nov. 20 due to a hyperextended right knee, Green was limited to just two catches for 26 yards in the rematch on Jan. 1.
"I think we just went out and did what we did," cornerback Cary Williams said. "We just played our regular defense. I don't think we game-planned too much for him last year. It was just us going out there and playing defense and being sound in our techniques."
Because of the bar that has been set, there's some concern that Green may not duplicate last year's numbers. But if that's the case, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis argued that the reason won't have anything to do with a "sophomore slump."
"Nothing A.J. does surprises the people who watch him every day, and there's every reason to believe he'll be better this year," Lewis told the Cincinnati media. "This is not a guy you worry about having a sophomore slump."
Green said he's not worried about his numbers from last season. The only thing that matters is performing this season.
"I don't feel like I have anything to prove," he said. "I am just going out there and playing my game. Whenever the ball is thrown at me, I'm going to try to make the play."
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