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It’s a good time to be an elite wide receiver in the National Football League.
Last August, Odell Beckham Jr. inked a five-year, $90 million extension with the New York Giants that included almost $41 million guaranteed at signing. After a trade sent him from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Oakland Raiders, Antonio Brown received a three-year, $50.1 million extension with just over $30 million in guarantees. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reported the Atlanta Falcons are in talks with Julio Jones on an extension worth $20 million per season.
Another high-end pass-catcher is entering a contract year—a receiver who, at his best, is on par with the likes of Beckham, Brown and Jones. But after two injury-marred seasons in the past three years, it’s fair to wonder just how much A.J. Green is worth and whether the Cincinnati Bengals are willing to pay it.
As Fletcher Page reported for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Bengals owner Mike Brown said his organization is more than willing to give Green, the fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft, a third contract with the team—provided the price is right:
“Oh, I think he’s a proven commodity, isn’t he? The price range for him will be something we can figure out, will come together.
“It’s true with anyone, if they suddenly get an injury that it reduces them. Well that changes the equation, but I never plan on that happening. I like to think that won’t happen. If A.J. is healthy, he’s as good a receiver as anybody in the league.”
Therein lies the rub.
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Brown is absolutely right.
When healthy, Green is as good a receiver as you’ll find throughout the NFL. In eight seasons, he’s topped 1,000 yards six times, including his first five years in the league. He’s hit or surpassed the 10-touchdown mark three times. Seven of his seasons have ended with a trip to the Pro Bowl, and he was named a second-team All-Pro in 2012 and 2013.
Green’s 80.2 career receiving yards per game do rank last among the four receivers already mentioned in this article.
But to be fair, Brown played with a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, Jones caught passes from an NFL MVP in Matt Ryan and Beckham reeled in throws from a two-time Super Bowl MVP in Eli Manning. Green has spent his career with a good but hardly great signal-caller in Andy Dalton.
However, he more than holds his own when looking at career yards per reception:
- Julio Jones: 15.4
- A.J. Green: 14.8
- Odell Beckham Jr.: 14.0
- Antonio Brown: 13.4
Green, Beckham and Jones are the only three active players averaging at least 14 yards per reception and 80 receiving yards per game, which might make Cincinnati feel better about a decision to pay him. The Bengals receiver also made it clear, per the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner, that he’d prefer to remain in the Queen City for the remainder of his career:
“My goal when I got drafted was to always stay in one place the whole time. No matter what the situation was. I want to win, I want to bring something to this city. I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, A.J. left because he wasn’t winning.’ It’s not about football, that’s just who I am to stay loyal to whoever gave me an opportunity.”
So we have an elite player who wants to stay with his team. No problem, right?
Actually, a large one might exist.
The “when healthy” caveat around which we’ve danced has become a significant one in recent seasons. In 2016, a hamstring tear limited him to just 10 appearances. Last year, he lost almost half the season to torn ligaments in his toe.
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That’s quite the potential bump in the road for a player who turns 31 this summer. In fact, he’s three weeks to the day older than Brown. Jones is a bit younger; he won’t celebrate his 31st birthday until the day after Super Bowl LIV.
Still, given the similarities in age and production, Brown’s recent contract (three years, $51 million) and the reported upcoming deal for Jones (potentially five years, $100 million, per Freeman) offer an idea of the two directions the Bengals could go.
The first is the Brown route: a short-term deal with an average annual value around $18 million. (That’s slightly more than the new Raiders wideout received because these contracts feature constant games of one-upmanship.)
The trade-off would be guaranteeing a larger percentage of the overall contract. In Brown’s case, per Spotrac, the guarantee comprised 60 percent of the deal’s total value. Given that Green has been a model player throughout his career and not the problem child Brown has been of late, that percentage would all but certainly be substantially higher.
But those injuries that have plagued Green would force the Bengals to assume risk. If they continue to be problematic, Cincinnati could be on the hook with millions of dollars in wasted cap space.
That leads to the Jones road, which would see the Georgia product earn a whopper of a deal. Perhaps he could even join Larry Fitzgerald and a hypothetical Jones—remember, that contract isn’t yet signed—in the $100 million club.
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The upside is that an out could be worked into the pact—an insurance policy of sorts that could be exercised should injuries continue to plague Green.
We know with near certainty that something will get worked out between the Bengals and their star receiver. The team has a history of locking up its own, whether it’s Carlos Dunlap or Geno Atkins. A pretty strong argument can be made that Green is the best pick Brown has made since taking over as team owner in 1991.
We also know that whether it’s a short-term deal with a hefty percentage guaranteed or a long-term deal with a built-in escape hatch, Green’s extension will be massive. The floor is around $17 million annually. The ceiling rises over $20 million.
Most importantly, we know Green is worth it…so long as he stays healthy.