The Cincinnati Bengals have one of the more talented young rosters in the NFL thanks to excellent drafting by head coach Marvin Lewis, but who wears the crown as the best player for the Cincinnati Bengals right now?
Is it one of the big playmakers on offense such as quarterback Andy Dalton or A.J. Green? Or is it a defensive stud such as linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, or even safety Reggie Nelson? How about a quiet veteran like left tackle Andrew Whitworth?
Narrowing down the list is difficult, but that is nothing but a good thing for the Bengals moving forward. The 2012 edition of the Bengals is doing great so far, but the sky is the limit as all the talent littered throughout the roster continues to develop together.
When crowning the best player on the roster, a variety of things have to be taken into consideration, but most important is how the winner impacts every game each week, carries himself on and off the field and how he impacts the play of those around him.
Let's take a look at the candidates for the crown.
Candidates for the Crown
Geno Atkins, DT
Atkins is the most disruptive force on the defensive side of things for the Bengals and is arguably the best pass-rusher from the defensive tackle position in the NFL. His disruption on nearly every play pressures quarterbacks into bad decisions and routinely clogs up running lanes.
So far, Atkins has a spotless record off the football field, and on it, he makes those around him better because opposing offensive lines have to focus primarily on shutting him down, creating opportunities for his teammates.
A.J. Green, WR
Green may already be a top five receiver in the NFL, and if he is not, he will be by the conclusion of the 2012 season. He singlehandedly wins games for the Bengals because there is not a cornerback in the NFL that can cover him one-on-one.
Like Atkins, Green also has a spotless record off the field. On the field, he constantly commands double teams or makes the opposing team pay dearly. The attention defenses have to give Green on every play create unlimited opportunities for other receiving targets and running backs.
Andy Dalton, QB
Dalton took the league by storm last year in his rookie campaign by being poised in the pocket and displaying veteran-like anticipation skills that allowed him to lead the Bengals to the postseason.
While Dalton still struggles with accuracy at times, he has proven to be the perfect quarterback for what the Bengals are attempting to accomplish in the West Coast offense. There have been no off-field issues, and he possesses elite leadership skills and spreads the ball around without discrimination.
Carlos Dunlap, DE
While not the biggest name on the Bengals roster, in 2012, it has become apparent to fans across the nation that Cincinnati has nowhere near a solid pass rush without Dunlap in the game.
Dunlap has the physical tools to be an elite defensive end if he can shake his recent string of injuries. He hasn't had issues off the field since college, and he, combined with Atkins on the defensive line, creates almost unlimited problems for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks.
Who Wears the Crown: A.J. Green
Picking from the four candidates above is no simple matter, but at the end of the day, Green has been an elite player from his first snap with the Bengals and will continue to be for as long as he remains in Cincinnati.
It was difficult to eliminate any of the candidates, but each have enough flaws to hold them back. Dunlap has hit a recent injury bug and is not the best player on the defensive line.
Atkins is the best player on the line, but does not have as big of an impact as Green does on the offensive side of things.
Finally, we would be signing a different song about Dalton's rookie campaign had Green not been hauling in his passes and making big plays consistently.
Green is easily the best player on the Bengals roster today. Let's take a look at why.
At the end of the day, Green has no problems putting up eye-popping numbers with ease. Even as a rookie with a rookie quarterback coming off a lockout, Green posted 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.
In 2012, Green is off to a fast start once again, having already caught 21 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns.
Green statistically has picked up right where he left off in his rookie campaign, but looks even better in 2012. Defenses have seemingly attempted everything in the book to shut Green down, but he still manages to fill up the stat sheet with comparable numbers to the best in the league.
Green is a rare breed of receiver that can change games in a heartbeat, with the only other players at his position with comparable ability being Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson.
Thanks to a dramatically diverse skill set, Green can beat defenses deep on a jump-ball, fight for tough yards over the middle or even take a hand-off for a touchdown on any given play.
A good example would be Green's touchdown against the Washington Redskins in Week 3 this season, which also happened to be on the opening play of the game. Green had a mismatch against a slot corner, capitalized in a big way and the Bengals never looked back.
That is but one example of what Green can do on any play, and the scary part is that he is still improving.
Leadership and Desire to Improve
Green has not even come close to reaching his full potential yet, which is great news for the Bengals and terrible news for the rest of the NFL.
Despite the fantastic rookie campaign, Green made a point to do nothing but improve in the offseason leading up to the 2012 season.
Last season, some called Green too lanky, and that was probably a good assessment. So how did Green respond? He added 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason to increase his durability and make him tougher to bring down.
If that weren't enough, Green trained in the offseason with Calvin Johnson, the receiver who happens to be the best in the NFL. The same receiver who posted almost 1,700 yards receiving to go with his 16 touchdowns in 2011.
Green says that he took a lot away from Johnson, but most importantly, his work ethic and attitude (via NFL.com):
Just the way (Johnson) works, man...Just the way he goes about his business, the way he's stayed humble and kept his head down. He leads by example...I just want to go out there and win.
Not only is Green learning the ins and outs of being an elite receiver, he is learning how to properly carry himself as well.
Drastically Alters the Game for Those Around Him
As hinted at earlier, had Green not been a member of the Bengals in 2011, Dalton would have had a drastically different rookie campaign. Green managed to inflate Dalton's numbers by routinely adjusting and making highlight-worthy grabs on errant throws by the rookie.
Expect more of the same from Green in 2012, but his impact on teammates does not stop there. Defenses have to pay so much attention to Green that it opens up other receivers on the team to single coverage consistently, which is why receivers like Armon Binns and Andrew Hawkins have already begun to have breakout seasons.
Even if Green happens to have a quiet game, he is having a huge one as a decoy that is creating unlimited opportunities for those around him.
The best is yet to come from Green, who has a relentless desire to improve and be the very best he can be. He's a breath of fresh air for an organization that has routinely suffered through me-first players.
Green is a rare breed of player that will change the fortunes of the Bengals franchise for a decade or more should the franchise be able to retain him.
In 2012, A.J. Green wears the crown for the Cincinnati Bengals, but it's the foreseeable future beyond this season that should excite Cincinnati fans and NFL fans in general.
The crown belongs to Green, and will for a very long time.