ATLANTA — Even though the decision seemed obvious, A.J. Green called it one of the most difficult he's ever had to make.
Georgia's star receiver said Sunday he'll give up his senior season to enter the NFL draft. He's projected as one of the top picks — possibly even No. 1 after Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck decided to stay in school another year.
"The last couple of weeks were pretty hectic," Green said in a teleconference from his home in South Carolina. "I was just trying to make a sound decision for my family and I. It just came down to what was best for me and them."
Green's draft status wasn't hurt by a four-game suspension at the start of his junior season, his NCAA-imposed punishment for selling a bowl jersey for $1,000 to someone deemed an agent.
If anything, his prospects improved last week when Luck, who led Stanford to a 12-win season and Orange Bowl victory, decided to return to college next season.
Still, Green insisted that he wrestled with whether to return to Georgia for one more year.
"Oh man, this was one toughest decisions I've made," he said. "Just leaving the brotherhood I have made at Georgia, the staff and all my coaches. They've prepared me for the real world. I'm really going to miss that. But I feel like they've prepared me for the real world, to be a man."
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Green has just about everything that's needed in a top receiver: size, leaping ability and deceptive speed. But he stands apart because of his intuitive skills when the ball's in the air, a knack of maneuvering his body into just the right position to make the catch, no matter how many defenders are trying to get in his way.
He always seems to make the reception when the ball's at its highest point, giving him a distinct advantage against mostly shorter cornerbacks.
Green is ready to take those skills to the NFL and possibly be the second top overall pick from Georgia in three years. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was taken No. 1 by Detroit in 2009 after passing on his senior season with the Bulldogs.
"This is a great opportunity for me," said Green, who talked with Stafford before making his decision. "This is a long-term thing, something I've been thinking about since I was a little boy. I feel my skills are up to par to make the next jump. I feel I have proved myself as one of the best receivers in college football from Day 1. I believe I can easily make that next step to the NFL and do the same."
Not that he doesn't have some work to do.
"I have to improve my game a lot," Green said. "I have to get a little bigger, a little faster, and I have to get a little smarter. But I'm up for the challenge."
Green said he didn't worry about the NFL's labor unrest and the possibility of a rookie salary cap — "if I had really thought about that, I probably would've stayed in school" — but he's certainly aware of the team that has the top pick in the draft: the Carolina Panthers.
That wouldn't be too far from home.
"I'm pretty sure a bunch of my family and friends could make that trip easily," he said.
Over a three-year college career, Green had 166 catches for 2,619 yards and 23 touchdowns. Even missing four games this past season, he led the Bulldogs with 57 catches for 848 yards and nine touchdowns.
Still, his career ends without the Bulldogs coming close to a championship. This past season, Georgia went 6-7 — its first losing season since 1996.
"It hurts," said Green, adding that a title "is what I came here for. But things happen for a reason. I'll keep working, and I'll be a Bulldog for life. I'll miss the guys and the coaches."
Green said he needs only two semesters of school to earn his degree and intends to finish his academic work even as he prepares for the NFL.
"A.J. has made an immeasurable impact on our team over the past three seasons and we wish him nothing but the best," Georgia coach Mark Richt said in a statement. "I've enjoyed the blessing of working with him and getting to know his family, and we wish him all the success in professional football. Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog."
Georgia is still waiting for a decision from outside linebacker Justin Houston, a second-team All-American who had 10 sacks, 18.5 tackles for losses and excelled in a 3-4 scheme installed by new coordinator Todd Grantham.
Offensive lineman Trinton Sturdivant said Friday he plans to return for his senior season. He started as a true freshman in 2007 and was regarded as Georgia's rising star on the offensive line before he missed the 2008 and 2009 seasons with knee injuries.
Sturdivant returned to win a starting job in the second half of the 2010 season, but said he believes he can improve his draft status by playing another year of college.
Green is done.
"You never know with the draft, but it's going to be a fun process," he said. "I'm going to work to get as high as I can."