Warning: This article contains opinions.
The Denver Broncos have NEVER had a wide receiver of Brandon Marshall's caliber. Sorry if that sounds ridiculous. Think about it.
Take the emotion of Rod Smith's impending retirement out of this conversation, it doesn't belong here. Rod Smith is widely considered the top wide receiver in Denver's history. Rod Smith was a captain, a leader, and, in his prime, a top flight rout-runner and run blocker. He could find a way to get open. He could make something happen after the catch. But he was NEVER a threat to score every time he touched the ball, regardless of where he caught the ball. He was never one of the biggest and strongest players in the league at his position. He never flashed the speed or strength that Brandon Marshall regularly brandishes. Now if Brandon Marshall could just subscribe a little more to the Rod Smith School of Professionalism, I think we'd all feel more comfortable.
I wouldn't be lying if I said that Brandon Marshall has some off-the-field baggage. He seems to make more mistakes than you'd expect from one of the NFL's brightest new stars. Let's agree that he's more Shannon Sharpe than he is Rod Smith. I think he'll harness his wild streak, in fact I really do think he was rough-housing with family and friends when he put his arm through the entertainment system. Believe me; I've been to the ER for seemingly far-fetched reasons as well. If this had happened in 1982, nobody would have heard about it and it would be a joke in the locker room, but because of pervasive media, we know about everything in real time, so cut the kid a break. He's 24 and has millions, and to his friends and family, he's royalty. What do you expect? Rod Smith was the exception, not the rule. Once you admit that, you'll be closer to appreciating Brandon Marshall, even though he has flaws; and fortunately (or unfortanately) most of his flaws are of the off-the-field variety.
Scouts Inc just ranked him the #14 Wide Receiver in the NFL. If he improves, even by a small margin, over his output last season, he'll easily move into a top 10 position, and maybe closer to a top 5 position. Brandon Marshall is very similar to a few players in the NFL, but nobody possesses the exact same mix of emotion, speed, strength, size, and hands.
Let's try this exercise. Write down a list of Wide Receivers that you rather have on your team than Brandon Marshall. I bet it's not a long list, especially if you considered how much money he makes, his age, and that he doesn't have the "locker room cancer" stigma that many top flight Wide Receivers have.
I put together statistics for Brandon Marshall and some current stars and Jerry Rice, the barometer by which all modern day Wide Receivers are measured. Please note that there are a few empty slots on Jerry Rice's stat sheet because they didn't measure YAC (Yards after Catch), 1st (number of receptions for 1st down) or Att (Times thrown to) until later in the 1980's. In fact Jerry Rice is most responsible for the YAC statistic's existence.
Most of these statistics didn't surprise me once the chart was finished. What did surprise me is how different Brandon Marshall is from the rest of the list. He's not your typical deep threat like Moss or Ocho Cinco. He's not your typical possession guy either, though. He's big like T.O. and has great hands like Fitzgerald, but he's better at making the defense miss than T.O. or Moss, or really, any of these guys.
So I looked a little deeper and came up with a second set of statistics. This one compares Marshall with the player that he most resembles most in today's NFL (Anquan Boldin's rookie season), compares him to Rod Smith's best ever season (2001), and finally compares him with the best YAC numbers compiled in a season (Steve Smith in 2005). A few similarities in the second list too, none of the four Wide Receivers listed had a true 2nd WR to compliment them, so they produced what they did against the NFL's top talent, not to mention that the NFL's top talent would have been prepared for them, as they were the featured Wide Receiver that season. In those seasons, Ed McCaffrey and Javon Walker missed almost the entire season. Steve Smith was the only offensive threat his team, and Larry Fitzgerald was drafted the very next season by Arizona. Now, these players may have gotten more looks, but as mentioned before, didn't get ANY breaks in regards to their matchups with the defense.
This top chart is the first comparison. It highlights these WRs SECOND year in the NFL. The second year is considered by many, including myself, to be a better barometer than the first year in the league, although there are exceptions.
The YAC numbers come flying off of the page, don't they? None of the other NFL greats or current stars have YAC numbers in Marshall's stratosphere in their second year. In fact, Brandon Marshall ranked 4th in YAC in the NFL last year. That's an impressive ranking considering that in the first 2 games of the season, he was an afterthought compared to Javon Walker. Although his numbers in this category are audacious, they're not surprising to anyone that watched him play every week. Obviously his game is making something happen after the catch and the YAC numbers reflect that. It's important to note that, of the players on this list, only Jerry Rice (692) and T.O. (644) have ever surpassed 500 YAC in one season.
I was also not surprised by his yardage comparisons. He's right in the middle. He's not a speed receiver/deep threat like Rice, Moss, and Johnson. He's more similar to Fitzgerald or Owens physically, and that's the story his numbers tell.
The YPR (Yards per Receptions) mirror the same thought. But I created a few stats that tell a more interesting story. YAC/Rec is the number yards that the player averages per reception. If you take this number, and subtract it from the total YPR, you get my "YPR/QB" stat. This stat could be called "air-yards". My reasoning is that if the WR had zero YAC in 2007, but had 10 YRP, that would mean he caught the ball and literally went to the ground every time he caught the ball. It would mean that the QB was responsible for 100% of the Yards per reception (10 yards per reception). It would also mean that the WR was responsible for 0% of the YPR, and that's what the % of YPR column is. It's a reflection of the percentage of yards per reception that the WR is responsible for.
But when you add up Marshall's YAC per reception, you find out that he is averaging 4.95 YAC per reception, meaning that, on average, Marshall is catching the ball 8.05 yards from the line of scrimmage. If you follow that line of thinking, you realize that typically he's good for at least a first down. Now, compare that with the field. The other WR's "Air Yards" (YPR/QB) numbers say that these guys are catching the ball right at or beyond the first down marker. They don't need to work as hard as Marshall does to get to the sticks. Now consider that Marshall leads this category in 1st down production. Impressive.
I think % of YPR is a fantastic metric. It shows that although Marshall and T.O aren't consistent deep-sideline threats, they make more happen after the catch than the other players by quantum gap. We're talking 40% and 38% of the YPR as opposed to 18% to 26%. That's a baffling number. What's it mean? It means that Moss' 17.6 YPR, the QB did a lot of the work (around 13 yards of the work, to be precise), and that all Moss had to do was get downfield. That seems about right. Right? It means that Chad Johnson is only good for an average of 3 yards after the catch, and that for all of the accolades that go Ocho Cinco's way, Carson Palmer probably deserves the credit. T.O and Marshall have the market cornered when it comes to really making something happen after the catch, not just being open downfield. Give these guys their due.
Also, look at the First downs. It adds up, doesn't it? 70 first downs. 70! Actually his total first downs was 74 (4 rushing). That's 74 out of 305 total team first downs. That's 24.3% of the total team first downs. Brandon Marshall is responsible for a quarter of the first downs the Broncos got last year. Now it's not uncommon to see a big time WR with more than 60 or 70 first downs, but when it's a 2nd year receiver playing with a 2nd year QB, it's very impressive.
The reception percentage was also somewhat interesting. Moss and Johnson should have lower percentages due to the nature of being a deep threat and the degree of difficulty in the QB needing to make a longer throw. Following that line of reasoning, Harrison had a higher percentage, but much lower YPR due to the dink-and-dunk approach that and Peyton Manning use, not to mention that you don't typically see him do much after the catch. Marshall and Fitzgerald are bigger guys that work well in space, and they have similar YPRs and Reception Percentages.
Also above is the is the second chart. I wanted to put Marshall's 2nd year stats up against the best season an Broncos player has had, the best YAC season an NFL player has had, and the rookie year of the most physically comparable player in the league, in my opinion. I had to use Boldin's rookie year though, as he had an injury riddled 2nd year.
Now, take experience out of the equation and look at age.
You can't deny that Boldin (** denotes that it was his rookie year) and Marshall had, for all intents and purposes, the exact same season at age 23.
Also, look at the first down numbers. In the best ever season by a Broncos wideout, Marshall's 2007 campaign came up only 5 receiving first downs short.
You can also see, as players get a bit more seasoned, their Reception percentage jumps. Steve Smith caught about 70% of balls thrown his way, which is a great number for any player on any team.
How about some fun with numbers: By the same line of reasoning above that Marshall is turning 8 yard passes into 13 yard gains, Rod Smith was picking up 5.65 YAC in 2001 and along that line, was turning 6.4 yard passes (thanks Griese) into first downs. But Steve Smith was picking up 7.86 YAC in 2005, which is outrageous. He was taking 7.34 yard passes and picking up almost equal that amount with his feet. Wow.
Now, in Steve Smith's 2nd season, his YAC/Reception was 5.7. Marshall's 2nd year YAC/Reception was 4.95. If his YAC/Reception production increases, not even at the rate that Steve Smith's did (S. Smith's YAC/Reception went up to 7.86 his very next season, an increase of 72.5%, let's say Marshall's goes up 50%) Marshall is looking at 7.4 YAC/reception next year, and if you tack on the 8.05 yard throws he's getting, you're looking at 15.45 per reception, better than Steve Smith's totals that season and it equates to (with 100 receptions) 1,545 yards in 2008. That's a huge year and would set all of the Broncos' receiving records.
So, I know this is a long article and I threw a TON of stats at you, but what does this all mean? It means that Marshall compares more than favorably with the current top flight WRs in the NFL. It also means that he's shouldering more of the yardage load than almost anybody playing WR in the game right now, but for a player only going into his third year, he compares more than favorably with the top receivers in the game at this stage in his career.
Anquan Boldin's only knock is that he has a hard time staying healthy on the field, hopefully Brandon Marshall's only knock will be staying healthy OFF the field. We need to be a little patient as fans, but we should be very excited. Broncos fans have never had the front row seat to one of the elite (if not THE elite) QB-WR combo in the NFL, but now could be the time.
I can't believe Shanny found this guy in the 4th round. Wow. Again, kudos to Shanahan and the talent evaluators, they deserve more respect than they get.
Next Up: Selvin Young (The next Kevin Faulk?)