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The Greening of Bengals

Posted Apr 28, 2011

Updated: 4-29-11, 4:20 a.m.

A.J. Green has Super Bowl written all over him.

Georgia's gamebreaking wide receiver is going to wear No. 88, the year the Bengals went to their second Super Bowl. He was born during training camp that year (July 31) and comes from the same small South Carolina town of Summerville as the man that returned a kickoff for a touchdown in that Super Bowl, Stanford Jennings.

(Update: After this article was written, Green switched to jersey No. 18.)

He went to high school with Jennings' niece and knows Jennings' daughter, the girl born during that crazy night in Miami. And now another generation, the kids of the Post-9 era, is taking over with Green looking like he could gently nudge off the roster the most prolific Bengals wide receiver ever in Chad Ochocinco.

"I’m more of a low-key, behind-the-scenes kind of guy; I just try to do my job,” Green said in his conference call with the Cincinnati media Thursday night.

Call this the Speak Softly But Carry Soft Hands Era. At 6-4, 211 pounds, the Randy Moss-ish Green teams with another '88 baby (June 16) that prefers the low profile, tight end Jermaine Gresham, last year's leading AFC rookie receiver, to give some quarterback a couple of young studs to play bombs away. After walking out of the draft room with the team's top-rated offensive player in his first pick as offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, one of the greatest Arena League quarterbacks ever, was bouncing off the walls.

“Ah, we’ll find somebody; surely somebody ought to come throw to this son-of-a-gun," Gruden said. "I might come out of retirement for this guy. I am fired up. To me, the beauty of throwing to him is that he might be covered and you can put ball up and he will get it. He’s got unbelievable ability. That’s something we’re going to have to tell our quarterback. Even though it looks like he’s covered, just give him a chance. He makes circus catches look easy. Somebody will be here, and somebody will be delighted to have him and (Jerome) Simpson and all of our other receivers that are here with (Jordan) Shipley and Gresham. Things are looking bright.”

If Green has his coming-out party in Friday's 1 p.m. Paul Brown Stadium news conference, then Gruden had his at the news conference discussing Green's selection. It was the first time Gruden had been back in the room in the 83 days since he was hired. It hasn't exactly been a rose garden.

The franchise quarterback wants out. The players haven't been available to learn his new offense because of the lockout. The two quarterbacks on the roster have thrown a total of 15 NFL passes. With the club able to talk to players again Thursday, there was no sign that Carson Palmer had changed his trade-me-or-trade-me demand.

But on Thursday night, things were looking up.

Gruden spent the morning scrambling to put together playbooks after the NFL dropped a surprise at noon and said teams could welcome players into their facilities at 8 a.m. Friday with the lockout on temporary hold as the NFL asks for a stay. Then he spent the evening savoring the arrival of a player receivers coach James Urban says comes around every couple of years.

And it brought out Gruden's bubbly, enthusiastic personality that head coach Marvin Lewis hopes revives a stagnant offense.

Take Gruden's take on Green's low score on the scouting combine's mental aptitude test, the Wonderlic:

"All I know is that he plays smart and he makes big plays all the time. He’s consistently done that since he was a freshman in high school, and there’s no Wonderlic test that can take that away," Gruden said. "In talking to him and meeting with him, I know that if he is a little slower, which I don’t think he is, we’ll take time with him and make it comfortable for him. That’s our job, and mainly his job, to make sure that he learns. And he will learn. He’s a great player, and he’s a willing player. He’ll be here on time every day, and he’ll practice hard every day. Wonderlic-shmunderlic. He’s going to be fine.”

Gruden has the easy seen-it-all confidence of a guy that's been around the game when it was successful on three different levels of the pros. He didn't dwell on the Palmer question.

"Who knows? Who knows what’s going on over there in Cali? We’ll see," he said. "Hopefully he has a desire to come back, and the head coach and owner welcome him back, and he’ll come back. And if not, we’ll move forward and find someone who will play.”

He certainly thinks Green can play and Green likes the vibe with Gruden.

“I love him. Spending the whole day with him — he really lightens the mood," Green said. "It was just like hanging back at Georgia talking to one of the coaches.”

A  junior, Green averaged nearly 16 yards per catch in his three seasons while scoring 23 touchdowns as draft analysts came to a consensus early in the scouting season that Green was the top offensive player on the board. He runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, looks like a young Calvin Johnson, the Lions Pro Bowler, and has huge 34-inch arms.

"Demonstrates rare quickness that may be more important than his speed," says Ourlads Scouting Services. "Extremely long arms for the position. A consistent competitor. Uses his tall, rangy build to his advantage."

USA Today: "Complete receiver - can beat you deep, in the red zone, and on third down…Elite acceleration and change of direction…Reliable hands…Comes out of a pro style offense-runs a full route tree."

"Extremely athletic, confident, competitive, instinctive playmaker (that) routinely hauls in acrobatic grabs and has potential to become a truly elite receiver and take the lid off defenses," Pro Football Weekly says. "Possesses a rare combination of length, speed, quickness, hands and leaping ability."

Green, who served a four-game suspension last season for allegedly selling a game jersey to an agent, passed scrutiny from the coaches that began at February's scouting combine, moved to Green's Pro Day, and included last week's visit to PBS. The night before his workout in Athens, Green dined with the two newest Bengals coaches, Gruden and Urban.

That was the best part of the trip. The next day they couldn't watch his workout because of lockout rules since his quarterback for the session wasn't from the scouting region. By the time they got back to Cincinnati, video director Travis Brammer already had the workout on the coaching system, but they already knew what they were going to see.

After he broke the news to Green that he was a Bengal, Urban noted the player that went next to Arizona at No. 5, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

“A.J. saw some bump and run. And he saw some very good corners, too. One of them has gone already. We saw him against some great talent. He handles the bump-and-run very well," Urban said. "He has size and very long arms, and he uses those to his advantage. When we spent a bunch of time with him down there, and then when we brought him up here for a visit and talked Xs and Os and football, he’s very sharp. He knows coverage recognition, he understands quarterback progressions, he understands how his route fits into the pattern. We were very impressed with him.”

Green says he tweets about once a week. That's about how many times The Ocho gets a good block in the running game, which has long been a bone of contention with Lewis. That doesn't seem to be a problem with the 6-4, 211-pound Green.

"The best feature about him is that he doesn’t have a best feature; they’re all great features," Gruden said. "There’s nothing that he can’t do. He can do everything — he can run vertical, he can run underneath, he can break tackles, he can make the acrobatic catch, he can catch crossing routes and he’s not afraid, and he’ll block. I’m sure our running backs are going to be happy because he’ll be blocking downfield for us, and he’ll do a great job at that."

Green will also be lining up in more spots than The Ocho, almost always deployed in the X spot. But because of the flexibility of the West Coast, Gruden and Urban envision him at all three spots: X and Z and inside.

"We can move him around; to the defense, it looks like three different spots, but not to (Green)," Urban said. "In our room we want to make it as simple as possible, but look as complicated as possible on the other side."

Urban, who worked for the Eagles the previous seven years, says the obvious recent comparison is Calvin Johnson, the Lions 6-5, 235-pound Pro Bowl, but says he's built more like the skinnier Moss.

"But A.J. is strong now. He bench-pressed 18 (225 pounds)," Urban said. "He's very aggressive at the line of scrimmage. Especially when he's blocking. He's a little bit different because of his style of play and size."

If The Ocho tweets and glides, Green grinds and talks. He said he followed The Ocho growing up (yes, he was 12 when Chad Johnson was drafted), but that he was called "Little Randy Moss" as a kid. It's a sad but hopeful reminder of Chris Henry, the late receiver Carson Palmer dubbed "Randy Moss Jr."

“I followed him a lot growing up. People called me ‘Little Randy Moss’ in high school and I loved it. I watched Randy a lot,” said Green, who thinks they've got a similar style. "Yes, a little. I think I go through the middle and run short routes a little more often. I’m definitely not as fast as him.”

The Bengals hung at the four spot even though the Falcons made an enticing offer to trade down to No. 27 and Green has one of the toughest and most influential agents in the game in Tom Condon. With the league seemingly headed to 2010 rules and no rookie wage scale in sight, the fourth pick is nearing something like $40 million guaranteed. Executive vice president Katie Blackburn is going to be dueling before training camp with one of David Pollack's reps during his three-week holdout in 2005.

Lewis indicated the trade talk with the Falcons didn't yield the necessary value. He didn't say if Atlanta offered the same deal that Cleveland took: Atlanta gave up their second-rounder (59th) and fourth (124th) this year along with their first- and fourth-round picks in 2012 for the right to select Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones.

"We spoke to Atlanta numerous times over the last week, but we just felt good at not moving back to 27," Lewis said. "It's more than what we were willing to do and we felt good about the player we were going to stay there and take at No. 4."

Green agrees. The Bengals are the best fit for him even with Palmer's absence.

"I heard he wants out, but I’m just going by what I hear,” Green said. “After sitting down with Jay (Gruden) and watching film on offense, I feel like it’s similar to what we did at Georgia and I can step in right away and help.”

It couldn't come any sooner for Gruden. After 83 days, there was something to smile about.

"With his desire to work and his ability to make plays, he’s going to make a lot of them," Gruden said. "I’m fired up. We’re excited to start drawing up plays for him right now. We’ll probably go on the chalkboard as soon as the draft is over and draw up about 20 more. He’s a hell of a player, man. I’m all smiles right now." 

 

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