Is A.J. Green the Best Wide Receiver in the NFL?

(Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images) /

A.J. Green has been one of the best receivers in the league since the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him. But is he better than all of his elite counterparts?

On its surface, the question may seem pretty silly. A.J. Green never seems to lead the league in any notable statistical categories. In fantasy drafts, Green is never the first wide receiver off the board. He certainly doesn’t grab headlines the way other, flashier receivers do. But Green has long been among the upper echelon of the NFL’s receivers and has been a pillar of consistency for the Bengals.

Aside from Larry Fitzgerald, he’s the highest drafted wide receiver in the league. Green also has one of the most diverse skill sets of any wide receiver in the league, too. At what point does A.J. Green’s talent, versatility, and consistency make him a candidate for the title of NFL’s best wide receiver?

From a pure talent perspective, Green has a very legitimate case. A former 4th overall pick of the Bengals, Green came out of Georgia with basically no flaws. Nothing has changed since then. Green’s route running is incredibly crisp, and he can get separation on short, intermediate, and deep passes. He’s elusive enough in the open field to make people miss and fast enough to burn corners along the sidelines. Green’s hands are very reliable, too, only recording the occasional drop. He’s also physical enough to grab 50-50 balls and be a threat in the red zone. And of course, nobody is better at getting two feet in bounds along the sideline than A.J. Green.

Green’s stats match his raw talent to this point in his career. Green set an NFL record for most consecutive 1,000 yard seasons to begin a career with 5 (and should be 7 and counting had the Bengals let him finish out 2016). On a 16 game pace, Green actually broke 1,100 yards in each of his first six seasons. Moreover, he was on pace for at least 6 TDs in all of those seasons, including three with double digit TDs. Green often graded out as a top-five wide receiver in PFF after those seasons, too.

Even in his statistically worst year, last year, Green still put up a 75/1,078/8 stat line. He was PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver for the season. Green also finished as a WR1 in all fantasy football formats, even in a down year. For most wide receivers, this would be an excellent season. For A.J. Green, it’s a disappointment, which says a lot about Green’s ability and his statistical output for his career. Green sets the bar so high for himself, but he often meets and exceeds those expectations anyway.

In some ways, the Bengals may inhibit Green from reaching his full potential. Even though Green is a target monster, his catch percentage hovers around 60%. While 60% is perfectly fine, Green could have more success if there was a viable WR2 on the team to take away some coverage. For many seasons, Green has been by far the best target on the team, which attracts constant double teams.

One other way Green hasn’t been fully utilized is on deep passes. Green is among the better deep ball receivers in the league – his catch percentage is around 50% most seasons, which is near tops in the NFL. The primary inhibitor on deep balls is Andy Dalton, whose deep ball passing is lacking. Dalton rarely hurls it downfield, giving Green few options to snare downfield passes. If the Bengals gave Green more 20+ yard targets, his yards per catch numbers would get a bump and his total yards would certainly increase. Even with all his success in Cincinnati, Green has untapped potential.

Green certainly has stiff competition for the mantle of the best receiver. Some of the other elite receivers have even more dynamism to their game than Green. Green’s draft buddy, former 6th overall pick Julio Jones, stands out among them. Jones is a physical freak, with a size and speed combination few can match. He’s nearly impossible to defend on deep balls, even with a double team, just because of how physically overpowering he can be. In an anonymous poll of NFL GMs, a staggering 98% of them tabbed Jones as the receiver they’d want most on their team They cited his raw athleticism and stellar deep-ball catching as the primary reasons.

On the other end of the skill spectrum, Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham, Jr., are contenders for the title as well. Brown and Beckham are both ridiculously quick, giving them great separation on routes. They also can outrun basically any secondary player after the catch, making them total YAC monsters. Their quickness doesn’t diminish their ability to soak up red zone targets, either, as both have been among the league leaders in TDs the last few years. Both Brown and Beckham have the generational skills that put them in the conversation for best receiver in football, too.

All in all, it’s hard to make the claim that A.J. Green is the absolute best receiver in football. With talents like Jones, Brown, Beckham, and others, Green doesn’t stand out above the rest. That being said, Green is certainly in the top five and should be in consideration. Too often, Green is left out entirely as the “forgotten” elite wide receiver.

Next: Bengals training camp battles on offense

Green’s unreal statistical production in a relatively mediocre offense is fairly remarkable. If situations were different, and Green was in a pass-heavy attack like Pittsburgh, the conversation may be different. For now, Green will continue to dominate as the Bengals offensive cornerstone, maintaining his position as one of the best receivers in the NFL.