It's going to be easy to convince you in this piece that A.J. Green is the NFL's next superstar. For one moment Sunday, the Bengals' wide receiver nearly made everyone believe he was a superhero.
Going after a pass thrown ahead of him, Green left his feet to make a fully extended, 14-yard catch against the Jaguars. It was much more than a leap. Green took flight. He was in the air so long that he had time to pull the ball back to his body with his right hand and extend his left arm to brace his fall.
“You think you’ve seen about everything A.J. can do,” quarterback Andy Dalton said, “and you’ve seen so much you don’t think twice about his ability, and then he’ll show you something new like that one.”
Through the first four games of the season, Green has soared above all the other receivers in the league. He has been more dominant than Calvin Johnson. He has been more explosive than Larry Fitzgerald. He has been more productive than Andre Johnson.
In only his second NFL season, Green is second in the league in receiving yards (428) and is one behind the league leaders with three touchdown catches. He is on pace to catch 108 passes for 1,712 yards and 12 touchdowns. The numbers are more impressive when you consider the defense's focus every game is to stop him.
The Bengals are 3-1 and rank eighth in scoring because of Green, who is ranked seventh in ESPN.com's MVP Watch this week. He accounted for 41 percent of the team's total offense in a win at Washington two weeks ago and he represented 48 percent of the receiving yards in last Sunday's win at Jacksonville.
Green has been the constant on an offense that has been beaten up (two starters on the offensive line are injured) and has proved to be unreliable. Dalton has had two interceptions returned for touchdowns and the usually dependable BenJarvus Green-Ellis has fumbled three times in two games. Meanwhile, Green has gone over 100 yards receiving in back-to-back games and has scored a touchdown each week in a three-game win streak.
"He’s clearly the player that they believe in the most on that offense," Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox said. "I think they realize that in order for them to be successful, they need to get the ball in his hands. I’m sure that’s in their game plan every week.”
The greatest challenge for the Bengals offensively is trying to find ways to get Green open. On the first play in Washington, the Bengals put Green in the slot in the Wildcat formation to get him matched up against a safety. The result: a 73-yard touchdown pass.
In most instances, Dalton just has to trust Green will come down with the ball when double-covered. There really is no errant pass when throwing to Green because of his great hands and willingness to lay out for throws. He has the size to get off press coverage, the moves in route running to shake off cornerbacks and the acceleration to get behind safeties. His 16 receptions of 30 yards or more since he entered the league in 2011 ranks first over that span, one more than Fitzgerald and Johnson, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
What separates Green from other great receivers is how he carries himself. He's Randy Moss without the baggage. Green has yet to demand the ball or belittle his quarterback. In fact, Green has been one of Dalton's biggest supporters.
"The thing about Andy is he doesn't care where the defenders are, he's going to put that ball where I can go make a play," Green said. "He's one of the best at that. The guy can be great, I'm telling you."
In reality, Green is one of the few receivers who doesn't rely on his quarterback. It's the other way around. Green has been the centerpiece of the Bengals' offense since he was drafted fourth overall in 2011 (quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Von Miller and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus were selected before him).
Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003, catching 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns, and he has used his first full offseason in the NFL to get better. He attended all of the offseason workouts and spent time with Fitzgerald to pick up some tips before training camp began.
This is why Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Green "maybe the best receiver in football" only days before the regular season began.
Green's production has been as jaw-dropping as some of his catches. His average yards receiving per game (78.2) is the fourth most by any player in his first two seasons since 1970. It's slightly better than Jerry Rice's average in his first two seasons (78.0 yards), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It's crazy to compare Green to Rice after he has played 19 games. But Green has proved in the first four weeks that he's the best receiver in the game right now. And no one on the Bengals believes Green is going to fall from that spot anytime soon.
“He was a cut above most players in the league from the start,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “He really was the most impressive rookie I’ve ever been around. Nothing A.J. does surprises the people who watch him every day, and we fully expected he would be even better this year. This is not a guy you worry about having a sophomore slump.”