TEMPE, Ariz. — A.J. Green is not one to show much emotion, but an idea made him chuckle and draw a half smile.
The Arizona Cardinals’ new wide receiver, who signed a one-year contract guaranteed $6 million last week, has talked about playing alongside Pro Bowl receiver DeAndre Hopkins. This is a situation Green has never been in before. He has never met another receiver who has Hopkins’ attention.
In Green’s 10 years in the NFL – all with the Cincinnati Bengals and with seven Pro Bowl selections – he was the man who planned the defensive game. The thought of me not being a guy and having a date was enough to elicit a smile from Green.
I’m very excited about it, Green said. For ten years, I played in an offense where I was the centerpiece every week, and I came into this offense where all the other guys… It makes my job much easier.
And it’s not just an idea in Green’s head. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim expects Green to play primarily as a Z-catcher, or flanker. Green will play for Hopkins on the opposite side of the field, leaving teams to choose which side to send extra defenders to.
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If you’re in a critical situation in a game, as a defensive coordinator I’m going to try to take DeAndre Hopkins out of the game, said ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen, who played safety for four teams. There is no doubt about that. Whether it’s a backer or a protector, we’re seeing more and more split protectors in the NFL.
In the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are traditionally single-safety teams that Bowen says have been playing more of a split-safety game lately. The Los Angeles Rams split their safeties into the Coverage 2 and Coverage 6 schemes. If Hopkins is on the field, one of the high safeties will probably go on his side, Bowen said. And then the Cardinals could use a receiver like Christian Kirk, who Bowen said should be used more inside this season to take the focus off another safety.
That leaves green.
We take A.J. Green one-on-one on the outside corner and then you have the whole route tree, Bowen said. It depends on the fall, the distance and the game situation, but there are ways based on opponents in the league. I think it’s very important for any team to get A.J. Green, depending on what they do on defense, his one-on-one.
When Kim looked at Green’s videos from last season, he felt they didn’t reflect Green’s true story as a player.
Green played in all 16 games after missing the 2019 season with an ankle injury, catching 47 passes for 523 yards and two touchdowns while playing with three different quarterbacks.
According to the Cardinals’ game plan, Keim said Green was targeted 118 times last season, and that Cardinals scouts and coaches counted 38 balls that they believe were not caught.
In my opinion, he still has a lot left in the tank, Keim said. The roads are doing well, traffic is very heavy. I think he was the third best receiver in the NFL last year, he catches balls in traffic and has very strong hands, he still has vertical speed, he runs accurate routes.
Bowen described Green as a technician when it comes to the job.
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As all veterans know, the lofty attributes of an unsigned father diminish somewhat, but in terms of technique, setting up defenders, winning routes and creating distance, A.J. Green can still do it, Bowen said.
The way the Cardinals use the green will not be affected by the return of Larry Fitzgerald for the 2021 season, Kim said. He corresponded with Fitzgerald, a free agent who has not yet announced whether he will play or retire, but they did not discuss his plans for the season.
As far as Larry is concerned, it has no bearing on what he [Green] is participating in, Kim said. And again: The more talent there is at a position, the more depth there is, the more playmakers we can acquire, the more exciting it is for us.
Green’s ability to become a volume receiver will depend on how the defense plays with him, but his presence will give quarterback Kyler Murray not only another receiving option, but also a veteran to help him along the way.
The next step for Kyler is to master the pocket, to be a guy who can master routine throws into the pocket, Bowen said. You now have several options.
That’s why they go after a guy like A.J. Green. That’s why you’re doing this. And it’s not just about the A’s, we’re trying to make the playoffs. We all understand that. You get him to help your young quarterback because you believe in him, because Kyler Murray has high-level skills. He wasn’t first choice for nothing, was he? But as with any young quarterback in the NFL, the developmental process is ongoing, and you’re trying to encourage his development by giving him talent.