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Senior NFL Columnist

Bengals sophomore Green on cusp of joining NFL's elite receivers

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A.J. Green will likely see a lot more double teams this year. (Getty Images)  
A.J. Green will likely see a lot more double teams this year. (Getty Images)  

CINCINNATI -- When we rank NFL receivers right now, it's the Big Three at the top: Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald -- in whatever order you want to place them.

By December, it will be at least the Big Four.

I predict Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green will make it that way.

"I definitely want to be mentioned with those guys," Green said

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As the second-year receiver strives to reach that level, he got a chance to see what it's like to work alongside one of those Big Three this offseason, working out with Calvin Johnson in Atlanta. He saw firsthand the dedication, precision and hard work it takes to be a true great.

"I have a long way to go to get to where he is," Green said here during a break from training camp. "Maybe in a couple of years, I will be close."

Count on it. Green's rookie season was better than any of those put up by the Big Three. Green caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns last season, even though there was no offseason work because of the lockout.

Andre Johnson had more catches with 66 during his rookie season, but he had 976 yards and four touchdowns. Fitzgerald had 58 catches, 780 yards and eight touchdown catches while Calvin Johnson had 48 catches for 756 yards and four scores.

The top five receivers last season in yards per game were Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Fitzgerald and Steve Smith. Those five averaged an improvement of 47 catches from their first to their second seasons, with Cruz going from none in 2010 to 82 last season. The smallest increase was 29 by Welker.

Every receiver in the top 10 in catches last season saw their catch total go up by double-digits from their first to second season with the exception of Atlanta's Roddy White.

Amazingly, Green put up his numbers on instinct. Coming out of Georgia, he didn't get a chance to spend the offseason learning the Cincinnati offense. The lockout set him and his entire draft class back. It was show up at camp, learn the offense, and go run it.

Playing receiver as a rookie can be tough for any player. The coverage is tougher, the corners more physical. Now imagine playing it without an offseason and with a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton learning the offense with you. Somehow, those two helped lead the Bengals to a surprising playoff berth.

"When you are a rookie, you think about the little things," Green said. "They throw so many things at you. They show you a coverage, and then at the last minute they rotate to something else. We had no offseason. I kind of had to rely on my God-given talents. Now it's so much different. I know what I am doing. I can just go out and play now."

That has to be downright scary for opposing defensive backs. He was just going on natural ability last year and did what he did?

"I think the mindset we have is we're going to make big jumps this year," Dalton said. "We don't know anything about a sophomore slump. We're just going to keep improving."

To help prepare for his second season, Green added 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame. He is now 213 pounds and looks much more solidly built. He's never going to be thick like Andre Johnson, but he knew he had to get bigger to deal with the physical style of play of the NFL.

Now comes the mental part. There will be more things put in for him this season. Early last year, he saw a lot of single coverage. And he beat it. But as the season moved along, Green saw a lot of doubles. He said at times he had problems dealing with them.

With inexperience expected to start opposite him -- it could be a rookie even -- Green should see a lot more doubles in 2012. The competition on the other side features some young players who have little experience.

"As a rookie, when the coverage rolls your way, you're really not sure of the right way to beat it," Green said. "Now I know exactly what I need to do. If they roll my way, I know what I have to do to get open against it."

The Bengals will also move him around more this season to help keep the double away as much as possible. But the great ones get doubled. As Bengals coordinator Jay Gruden said, "Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald found a way to deal with it."

The race to be the next elite receiver looks to be a battle between Green and Atlanta's Julio Jones, who also showed well as a rookie last season after being a high first-round pick in 2011. The two know each other and spent time together in Atlanta this offseason.

It's a friendly competition, but Green said it's a competition.

"It's nice that we came in together," Green said. "We competed against each other in college and now we're doing it in the NFL."

Who makes it the Big Four first? Or will it be the Big Five?

For now, Green isn't ready to place himself into that class. Not after seeing Calvin Johnson do his thing during their offseason workouts.

"He's a freak," Green said.

So are you, A.J. That is why you're about to join the receiving elite in 2012.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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