As the Bengals stumble into the abyss without a win and without the recently benched Andy Dalton, it's clear they're at the very beginning stages of what could end up becoming a lengthy rebuild. And that has called A.J. Green's future with the only team he's called his own into question.
Green has yet to play this season after, but he is nearing a return, having taken part in team drills for the first time all season on Wednesday. When healthy, Green is one of the league's top receivers and has been since he entered the league back in 2011. But he's also halfway through the final year of his contract and he'll be 32 when next season begins. As the Bengals hit the reset button, there's a very real and convincing argument to be made that Green no longer fits the Bengals' timeline.
On Wednesday, Green addressed his long-term future with the team. While it sounds like he'd very much like to remain in Cincinnati next year, he also sounds like he only wants to come back if the team offers him a long-term deal. He isn't interested in the franchise tag.
"I'm not into a one-year," Green said, via ESPN. "Give me a long-term (contract) or just let me go."
However, if the Bengals do hit Green with the tag, he won't hold out.
"That's not me," Green said. "I'm not giving free money away. I don't care what that is."
The fourth-overall pick in 2011, Green averaged roughly 75 receptions, 1,113 yards, and eight touchdowns per season coming into this year. Since 2011, even including this year, he ranks sixth in catches, fourth in yards, and sixth in touchdown catches among all players. If he does hit free agency, he'll be coveted. Every contender should be interested in acquiring his services. But as Green alluded to, even though he's set to become an unrestricted free agent, the Bengals still control his future. If they want, they can deploy the franchise tag and keep him around so that whichever young quarterback is starting next year has a legitimate WR1 to target, which would help to ease the transition.
But from Green's perspective, it's easy to understand why he doesn't want to be tagged. He'd be spending the 2020 season on what will likely be a bad football team and he wouldn't be hitting free agency until 2021, meaning teams would be even more wary of handing him a long-term contract before his age 33 season.
The best outcome for both sides actually would've been a trade before Tuesday's trade deadline, giving Green a chance to play meaningful football for a contender and allowing the Bengals to acquire draft ammunition, but the deadline came and went without Green (or any other Bengals) getting moved. But on Wednesday, Green didn't indicate any frustration with how the trade deadline shook out
"I'm not going to be a guy that says, 'Oh I want to get traded' and then go to a situation where I'm not happy," Green said. "Like, I'm genuinely happy here. We might not win, but I'm happy here. But at the end of the day, this is a business. I know my worth and I know what I bring to this team."
In the short term, when he is able to return from injury, Green will serve as Ryan Finley's top receiver. His job will be to ease . In the long term, his role is far less certain. He'll either be the veteran leader of the Bengals' rebuild or he'll be nothing more than a memory from an expired era of Bengals football, an era defined by what ifs and almosts.