CINCINNATI — For the last two years, A.J. Green represented nostalgia and hope for the ailing Cincinnati Bengals.

The wide receiver was part of a run of great draft picks for a team that made the playoffs for five straight seasons, a nucleus that seemed poised to give Cincinnati a postseason winner. Green blossomed into one of the NFL’s top receivers and a seven-time Pro Bowler.

As the franchise shifted into rebuilding mode, the Bengals hoped Green could be part of a core that flipped the Bengals into a winner again.

That hope disappeared on Wednesday. In an exit foreshadowed for months, Green agreed to terms with the Arizona Cardinals on a one-year deal that includes $6 million in guaranteed money.

Green’s departure is a reminder that the Bengals were never able to fully capitalize on a great young core that included Green, quarterback Andy Dalton, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and defensive tackle Geno Atkins. What’s worse is that after six wins in two seasons and a modest haul during free agency this week, hope for a Bengals playoff run in 2021 might be reserved only for the extreme optimist.

Green, who will be 33 at the start of this season, hinted that a split from the Bengals was looming in one of his final interviews of 2020.

“It’s just another chapter in my book to where I can go out there and continue to play football, whether it’s here or somewhere else,” Green said before the season finale against Baltimore.

The fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft had many high points and established his legacy as one of the NFL’s best wide receivers in the 2010s.

From the time he was drafted through the 2017 season, Green amassed 8,213 receiving yards, the fourth-highest total in the NFL during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Yet a combination of miscues and some bad luck kept the Bengals from winning their first playoff game since January 1991 despite five straight trips to the postseason from 2011-15.

After coach Marvin Lewis and the Bengals parted ways following the 2018 season, it was clear they were about to enter a full rebuild under new head coach Zac Taylor. And over the past 12 months, some of the key players from Cincinnati’s playoff run moved on.

The Bengals released Dalton, their starting quarterback since he was drafted in 2011, one round after Green. Dunlap, who arrived with Atkins in the 2010 draft class, left as the Bengals’ official all-time sack leader when he was traded in the middle of the 2020 season because of a rift with the coaching staff. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, Cincinnati’s first pick in the 2012 draft, was released after eight seasons

Meanwhile — and with all due respect to punter Kevin Huber and longsnapper Clark Harris — Green, Atkins and 2013 draft pick Giovani Bernard were the last of the major holdovers from that run.

Green missed all of 2019 after he suffered an ankle injury in the preseason leading up to the final season of his four-year deal. The Bengals gave Green a one-year franchise tag worth $18.2 million hoping that his old form materialized under Taylor and rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the 2020 top overall draft pick.

That never happened for a variety of reasons, including a season-ending injury to Burrow. Green finished the season with 523 receiving yards and just two touchdowns. Despite the recent adversity, Green expressed no bitterness as he approached his last game with Cincinnati.

“These last two years have hurt, but I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything because it made me a better, a better football player and a better man,” Green said.

And as he leaves, the Bengals are still searching for hope that they can reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Through the first three days of free agency, the Bengals’ big moves have been replacing outgoing starters in free agency — defensive end Trey Hendrickson for Carl Lawson, cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton for William Jackson III and Mackensie Alexander, respectively.

Any optimism about the future is centered on Burrow, who is recovering from the knee injury that halted his promising rookie season. Hendrickson cited Burrow as a reason for accepting a four-year deal worth $60 million with Cincinnati.

“I think there’s a lot of potential here with a quarterback in Joe Burrow,” Hendrickson told NFL reporter Josina Anderson on Tuesday. “The defense is one or two pieces away from really locking down other opposing quarterbacks.”

All of that remains to be seen, especially if the Bengals can’t improve the offensive line and give Burrow one or two more passing targets.

Green no longer has to fret about whether Cincinnati can look like the franchise he once played for. His focus will now be on helping Arizona improve and putting the finishing touches on his Hall of Fame resume.

Meanwhile as free agency continues and April’s NFL draft approaches, Green’s old club will be trying to reignite the flickering hope that dulled over the years.

“We’ve had some struggles these last two years,” Taylor said last week. “There’s no doubt about it. But the future is very bright and there is a ton of potential on this team. I know that people are gonna want to be a part of this.”

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