TEMPE, Ariz. — A.J. Green isn’t one to show a lot of emotion but one idea got him to chuckle and let out a half smile.
The Arizona Cardinals‘ newest wide receiver — signed last week to a one-year deal with $6 million guaranteed — was talking about playing alongside Pro Bowl receiver DeAndre Hopkins. It’s a situation Green has never been in before. He’s never lined up alongside another receiver who commands the type of attention Hopkins does.
For all of Green’s 10 years in the NFL — all of which were with the Cincinnati Bengals and included seven Pro Bowl selections — he was the guy defenses game planned around. The idea of not being that guy and seeing one-on-ones was enough to get even the slightest of smiles out of Green.
“I’m very excited about that,” Green said. “Ten years playing in an offense where I’m the focal point to take away every week, coming to this offense having all the other guys … it’s going to make my job a lot easier.”
And it’s not just some idea in Green’s head. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim is planning on Green primarily playing the “Z” receiver, which is the term for flanker. Green will play on the opposite side of the field as Hopkins, forcing teams to choose whose side to send extra defenders.
“If you come to a critical game situation, I’m a defense coordinator, I’m gonna try and take DeAndre Hopkins out of the play,” said ESPN NFL Analyst Matt Bowen, who played safety for four teams. “There’s no question about that. Whether you’re bracketing him, whether you’re putting a safety over the top, you’re seeing more, more and more split safety coverages now in the NFL.”
In the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are traditionally single-high safety teams who, Bowen said, have been playing more split safety lately. The Los Angeles Rams split their safeties in quarters, Cover 2 and Cover 6 schemes. With Hopkins on the field, one of those high safeties will likely roll to his side, Bowen said. And then the Cardinals could use a receiver such as Christian Kirk, who Bowen expects to be used more inside this season, to distract the other safety.
That leaves Green.
“We’re gonna get A.J. Green one-on-one on the outside corner, and then you have the entire route tree,” Bowen said. “It depends on down, the distance, game situation but there are ways, based on your divisional opponents, which I think is very important for every team, that based on what they do defensively that A.J. Green will get his one-on-ones.”
When Keim looked at Green’s tape from last season, he felt it didn’t tell the true story of where Green was as a player.
Green played in all 16 games after missing the 2019 season with an ankle injury and caught 47 passes for 523 yards and two touchdowns while playing with three different quarterbacks.
According to the Cardinals’ charting, Keim said Green was targeted 118 times last season, of which the Cardinals’ scouts and coaches counted 38 balls they thought were uncatchable.
“He’s still got a lot left in the tank, in my opinion,” Keim said. “Runs great routes, really strong in traffic. I think he was the third-best receiver in the NFL this past year with catching balls in traffic, and really strong hands, still has the vertical speed, runs crisp routes.”
Bowen described Green as a “technician” when it came to route running.
“As every veteran knows, your high-level traits start to get a little bit lower as Father Time’s undefeated, but in terms of technique and setting up defensive backs and winning at the top of the route and creating separation, A.J. Green can still do that,” Bowen said.
How the Cardinals use Green won’t be affected if Larry Fitzgerald returns for the 2021 season, Keim said. He’s texted with Fitzgerald, a free agent who has yet to announce whether he’s playing or retiring, but they haven’t discussed his plans for the season.
“As far as Larry, it doesn’t have any effect on where he [Green] would line up,” Keim said. “And, again, the more talent you can have in any position, the more depth, the more playmakers we can acquire, certainly excites us.”
Whether Green can be a volume receiver will be dictated by how defenses play him, but his presence will give quarterback Kyler Murray not just another receiving option but another veteran who can help him along the way.
“The next step for Kyler is to command the pocket, is to be the guy that can master the routine throws in the pocket,” Bowen said. “Now, you have multiple options to do that.
“That’s why you go get a guy like A.J. Green. That’s why you do that. And it’s not just, ‘Hey, we’re trying to make the playoffs.’ We all understand that. You get that to help your young quarterback because you believe in him because Kyler Murray has high-level traits. He was the No. 1 overall pick for a reason, right? But like every young quarterback in the NFL, there’s still a developmental process, and you try to facilitate the development by putting talent around him.”