One was expected to be a difference-maker right away. The other was supposed to take a little more time.
But last season, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Baltimore’s Torrey Smith both scared the bejesus out of NFL secondaries as the AFC North boasted two of the league’s most dangerous and productive rookie receivers.
Each scored seven receiving touchdowns, which was one shy of the rookie leader, Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons. Green, whom Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday might be the best wide receiver in football, led all rookies with 1,057 receiving yards and 65 receptions in 15 games last season. Smith was also in the top five with 841 receiving yards on 50 catches -- not too shabby after not catching a pass until Week 3.
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Though their pedigrees and expectations were different as rookies, both Green and Smith ended up comparing favorably to the rookie totals of some of today’s most respected wideouts -- like Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (48 catches for 756 yards in 2007), Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald (58 for 780 in 2004), Houston’s Andre Johnson (66 for 976 in 2003), New York’s Hakeem Nicks (47 for 790 in 2009), and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson (62 for 912 in 2008).
Green was the fourth-overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. With excellent speed, athleticism that inspires clichés and hyperbole, and prototypical height at 6 feet 4, Green played his way to the Pro Bowl in 2011. The Ravens were able to keep him under wraps last season, limiting him to two catches for 26 yards in their one meeting, but Green totaled 274 receiving yards and three touchdowns in four games against the Browns and Steelers.
“He was a cut above most players in the league from the start,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis recently said of Green, whose 1,057 receiving yards set a Bengals rookie record. “[He was] really the most impressive rookie I’ve ever been around. Nothing A.J. does surprises the people who watch him every day, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be better this year. This is not a guy you worry about having a sophomore slump.”
Smith lasted until late in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, 54 picks after Green, despite wowing scouts at the NFL combine by timing at 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash and reaching 41 inches in the vertical jump. Some viewed him as a project player.
Smith averaged 16.8 yards per catch -- Green was right behind him with 16.3 -- which was right up there with dangerous downfield threats like Johnson, Fitzgerald, Carolina’s Steve Smith, and Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace. Called a one-trick pony by some analysts -- he did have five touchdowns spanning more than 25 yards -- Smith appears to have since rounded out his game, focusing on his hands, route-running and other technical tweaks.
“He’s hard-working. He’s a very old-school, blue-collar kind of mindset guy. He just comes to work and he gives you his best every day. He plays through any kind of injury,” Harbaugh said Tuesday. “I think the world of Torrey Smith. That’s why he gets better. He’s got that mindset, and he gets better every single day.”
(Harbaugh added that Smith is talking about cutting his hair, which might not be a bad idea if you remember the game at M&T Bank Stadium last season when Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones yanked Smith down by his signature dreadlocks.)
Both players are poised for big second seasons in 2012, and each will draw plenty of attention from enemy defensive backs at M&T Bank Stadium on Monday night, making this a matchup to watch.
Of course, Green and Smith won’t be on the field together -- barring an unprecedented rash of injuries or a desperate Hail Mary heave, that is -- but we might be measuring these two talented, young wide receivers against each other for the next decade or so.