The Arizona Cardinals are betting on a bounce-back campaign from A.J. Green.
The former shoo-in Pro Bowler hasn't been a dominant force since 2017 due to injury. He missed seven games in 2018 and the entire 2019 campaign. Upon returning in 2020, Green played all 16 games and earned 104 targets but generated 523 yards and two TDs. His 5.0 yards per target were the fewest among receivers. Among all wide receivers with at least 100 targets in 2020, Green was the only wideout below the 750-yard barrier.
Despite the struggles, the Cardinals gave Green a one-year contract worth up to $8 million, with a base salary of $6 million. It's safe to assume that the Cards are counting on Green's pedigree shining through.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim told NFL Network's Steve Wyche and Jim Trotter this week that part of Green's issues last year could be attributed to uncatchable passes, which his staff charted at 38.
"A.J. Green, people seem to think maybe he's lost a step," Keim said on the Huddle & Flow podcast. "He's a guy to me that could play the Z position for us, has great character, as you guys know, and I still think he has some stuff left in the tank."
Keim noted in a Monday presser with reporters, via ESPN, that Green "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."
Viewing Green as the third-best receiver in "catching balls in traffic" depends on how you slice contested catches. According to Pro Football Focus, Green did have the third-most contested catches in 2020 with 19 -- behind DeVante Parker and Allen Robinson (21) -- and second-most contested-catch targets at 41. Green's contested catch rate of 46.3 placed him 26th among all WRs with at least 80 targets. (For comparison, DeAndre Hopkins caught 50% of 26 contested catches last season.)
Of course, when a wideout struggles to separate from a defender, by definition, most of his targets become contested catches.
According to Next Gen Stats, Green averaged just 1.7 yards of separation per target, tied for worst among all receivers with Parker. Living that close to cornerbacks makes life difficult. Green's minus-4.1% expected catch rate placed him fifth-worst among wideouts.
Even if accounting for wayward passes and the time it took Green to knock off the rust from missing a whole year and not having an offseason program to get back in the swing of things, the film on the 32-year-old wasn't pretty.
Arizona, however, is betting on another year removed from injury rejuvenating one of the most talented receivers of the past decade.
Green believes playing alongside Hopkins will also give him a boost. The former perennial 1,000-yard receiver is sure to get one-on-ones far more often than he did in Cincinnati.
"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."
On paper, it looks pretty lining up Green next to Hopkins and bumping Christian Kirk inside where he should destroy DBs on slot fades. If Green regains his form, the Cardinals will offer one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL.
That's the bet Keim is willing to make as Arizona pushes all its chips into the middle in 2021.