Mohamed Sanu, as a Bengal, has played with two different franchise receivers in their primes.
HOUSTON - Charles Tillman, the cornerback turned Fox analyst for Sunday's Super Bowl (6:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), took the cap of a water bottle this week when he was asked to name the best receiver between those 2011 NFL Draft soulmates.
The Bengals' A.J. Green, the 6-4, 210-pound fourth pick from Georgia, or the Falcons' Julio Jones, the 6-4, 220-pound sixth pick from Alabama, two southerners who have been connected at the hip since they played in a high school All-American game.
"Julio Jones is heads. This is tails for A.J.," said Tillman as he flipped the cap on a table. "Heads. Julio Jones it is. That's what it is. It's destiny. They're both phenomenal players. "
Their numbers, which both ignore, are numbingly close.
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Despite losing the final seven games of what would have been his career year this season with a partially torn hamstring, Green has been healthier with 86 games played out of a possible 96 while Jones has played in 79. He's averaged 6.3 catches and 96.3 yards for a 15.3-yard average in those games. Green has averaged 5.6 and 83, respectively, for 14.8. Green has 49 touchdowns and six Pro Bowls, Jones 40 and four.
"Two studs," Tillman said. "I think Julio has more explosion. That's his edge. A.J. does a really good job tracking the ball and hand-eye coordination.
"Two great picks."
Not only do Green and Jones share the numbers, they also have the same hear-a-pin-drop demeanor that is an eye-opening contrast to the diva wide receivers that populated the NFL in the decade before they arrived.
"I don't know what a diva is," Jones admitted Wednesday.
Neither does the middle man who has played with both of them. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu spent his first four seasons with Green in Cincinnati before he left in free agency and joined the Falcons this season for their Super Bowl run. Don't look for him to be the tie-breaking vote.
"They're just different," Sanu said Wednesday before the Falcons practiced. "Julio is a little bigger, a little bit faster than A.J. A.J. torques his body in ways I've never seen guys torque their bodies. I don't know why people try to compare the two. They're just totally different receivers."
But the same guy. Neither would say 'Salt,' if they had a mouthful.
A.J. Green: sharing stats and Sanu with Julio Jones.
"That's the weird part, it's really weird," Sanu said. "They're pretty much are the same guy. If they were sitting here they wouldn't be saying very much …. But there are certain times when they're around their brothers that they laugh and laugh joke around."
Sanu was sitting there and not saying much himself, particularly when reporters asked him about President Trump's travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries.
"It's not about my thoughts, it's about the team," Sanu said. "I don't really have any thoughts. Thank you."
Which sums up Sanu's workman-like approach to the game and to free agency. He said he would have loved to have kept the band together in Cincinnati with his 2012 rookie minicamp roommate Marvin Jones, but the Bengals weren't going to pay their slot receiver off a 394-yard season with no touchdowns $6.5 million per year on a five-year deal guaranteeing $14 million and that's what the Falcons chased him down with to replace Roddy White opposite Julio Jones.
"It was hard to leave. We're all brothers, but we had to do what was best for us and our families, "said Sanu, whose recognizable No. 12 is now topped off by "Sanu Sr.," a nod to his 17-month-old son .
In Cincinnati he was the fourth and maybe fifth option in a field headed by Green, Marvin Jones, tight end Tyler Eifert, and running back Giovani Bernard. Marvin Jones essentially took the same money to become a 1-A target in Detroit while Sanu settled in to catch a career-high 59 balls, a No. 2 on the team to Jones' 83, but not that far ahead of another wideout in Taylor Gabriel (50) and running back in Devonta Freeman (54) in Atlanta's varied passing game that conjures up for Sanu memories of the 2013 and 2015 Bengals' AFC North champs with an array of passing weapons and explosive and diverse backfields.
"(Freeman) reminds me of Gio a little, but (Tevin Coleman) is fast. He's a freak," Sanu said. "He reminds me of Julio just in running back form. He can run every route like a receiver and run the ball like a back.
"A lot of weapons and we run the ball tremendously. It's all a matter of how you use them."
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff knew exactly how he wanted to use Sanu with White out of the picture.
"He's a strong, physical presence," Dimitroff said. "He not only can catch it, but he has the desire to get just not one yard, but six or seven."
Even though Sanu ran just 47 more routes for the Falcons (450) this season than the Bengals last season (403), his role expanded in Atlanta with more snaps on the outside. He took 88 percent of his snaps in the slot for the Bengals, but just 59 percent this season while finishing as ProFootballFocus.com's No.1 slot receiver in the NFL with 41 of his catches coming inside for 460 yards and three touchdowns.
(Bengals rookie slot receiver Tyler Boyd also took 88 percent of snaps in the slot for 49 catches for 547 yards and a touchdown.)
"It just depends what we're trying to do," Sanu said. "Some (games) I'm inside the majority of time and sometimes I'm outside the majority of time. Coach just moves me around when he wants me to run certain routes."
Sanu's last Bengals' TD at Paul Brown Stadium came on a 25-yard run off a reverse and escorted by Andy Dalton.
Sanu did his damage on 49 targets. It took Boyd 70, but he spent nearly half the season running in the slot without Green. Now is a good time to bring out Sanu's observation that playing with Jones is a lot like playing with Green.
"It's the same thing. They draw those crazy coverages and you get a lot of one-on-ones," said Sanu, who had just one observation about covering Jones one-on-one.
"I wouldn't advise it."
Which is why the Falcons leaped 20 slots in the first round to take Jones. If the Bengals had taken Jones, it sounds like the Falcons would have done the same thing to get Green. While the Bengals were looking to replace their all-time leading receiver in Chad Johnson, the Falcons were trying to take the next step. Which didn't happen for six more seasons.
"We were looking for a guy that could have an impact on the game whether he caught four balls or 14," Dimitroff said. "That was after we were the No. 1 seed and we got beat by Green Bay and we were reeling a little bit. We needed a guy there that would keep the defense on its heels.
"We were going to move up for an impact guy. They were both very talented. The little nuances of their game are a little different."
Jones' physicality appealed to Dimitroff since there was a vague sense that the Falcons had too many finesse players. But Dimitroff felt the pendulum had swung a little too far to a big, thick, two-gap mindset.
"Then you've got a guy like Julio who brings to the table toughness," Dimitroff said. "They may not be as big as some, but they can move and there's a tough side to them that's coveted in this league … I think this team is a competitive, gritty bunch."
Jones and Green nominally keep in touch, but this season it was easy with Sanu.
"Sanu is the middle man," Jones said. "I knew he messed up his hamstring and he kept me up to date on that. I'm not a numbers guy. The NFL posts leading receivers on my feed or something and I looked it up and I said, 'A.J''s doing pretty good this year.' We're the same. We're quiet. We just go about our business."
Just like the middle man.
There's been some uncharacteristic buzz around Sanu. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has raised the specter of trick plays in the big game, eying Sanu's golden right arm. Sanu has completed all five of his passes in the NFL that include some of the prettiest pearls in the Green-Dalton Era.
"Oh, he's got a good arm. He can throw it," Jones said. "He's versatile."
Except he hasn't thrown a pass since 2014.
"Don't know what you're talking about," said Sanu with a swallow-the-cat-smile.
Super Bowl 51 and no divas allowed.