Secret Superstars: Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos haven’t been short on star players the last few seasons. With Peyton Manning running the offense, the Broncos have consistently been one of the best teams in the NFL and production on offense hasn’t been an issue. But the Broncos’ real strength, especially last season, was been their defense. With strong players at every level, the unit remains one of the best in the league.
It’s no question that the Broncos have one of the NFL’s best secondaries. They have cornerback Chris Harris Jr., No. 4 on our Top 101 Players of 2014, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and newly-signed Darian Stewart. Add in slot corner Bradley Roby, and this is a secondary that teams will fear next season.
However, as good as their secondary is, it may not compare to the skill they have at their linebacker position. With the transition to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Wade Philips, opposing teams will see a steady dose of Von Miller and Demarcus Ware rushing the passer from OLB positions. Miller was ranked No. 10 in our Top 101 last year as one of the best OLB’s in all of football. Ware wasn’t so bad himself, but he could be even better as he returns to the outside linebacker position that he played for the first eight years of his career. However, inside linebacker Brandon M. Marshall is the player to keep an eye on. He’s the Broncos’ Secret Superstar for 2015.
Waiting for His Chance
Marshall was a fifth-round draft pick in 2012 by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In his rookie year, he dressed for four games and made one tackle on special teams. He was then waived by jacksonville and was not picked up until the offseason, when the Broncos signed him. Marshall played in all four preseason games, amassing a -1.0 overall grade in 134 snaps, but he showed enough positives that the Broncos kept him on the practice squad all season. In Week 17, he was promoted to the roster and played 15 snaps, making one tackle and allowing a catch on the only target he saw.
He was expected to be a backup in 2014, but an injury to Danny Trevathan in the preseason forced him into a starting linebacker position. Despite having only 15 snaps of regular-season experience, Marshall played all 76 snaps of the Broncos’ Week 1 game against the Colts. Despite a team-high eight tackles, he struggled in coverage; targeted 10 times, he allowed eight receptions for 88 yards. Over the first three games, Marshall was playing like a backup who wasn’t quite ready. His -3.1 overall grade in those games was the eighth-worst in the NFL among 4-3 outside linebackers, but then he started to turn it around.
Putting it Together
After the Broncos’ Week 4 bye, Marshall posted his first positively-graded game ever — a +1.0 against the Arizona Cardinals. In Week 6, he was targeted three times and allowed only one catch. It was a huge turnaround, and in those next three games (Weeks 5, 6 and 7) he was the fourth-highest graded player at his position, with a +5.7 overall grade. Then, in Week 8 against the San Diego Chargers, Marshall earned his highest grade of the year (+4.6 overall), highlighted by 11 solo tackles, 10 of which qualified as defensive stops. He allowed eight receptions on 10 targets, but only for 37 total yards. A majority of the throws were dump offs to the running back that Marshall broke on and made the tackles for short or no gains.
Marshall’s improved play continued as the season progressed. He was making more and more tackles — a majority of them being stops — but it was in coverage where he was excelling. His best coverage game came in Week 14 against the Buffalo Bills, there he was targeted seven times and allowed a mere three receptions. He also got his first career interception, as well as two passes defended. On the interception, he read Kyle Orton’s eyes the entire way and jumped in front of Scott Chandler just before the ball arrived.
Marshall’s regular season came to an end early into the Broncos’ Week 15 game against the Chargers, when he suffered a mid-foot sprain. He did, however, return for the the team’s Divisional Round loss and picked up right where he left off, grading out at +1.4 overall.
On the season, Marshall’s +18.9 overall grade was the fourth-highest at his position, and his +10.1 coverage grade was tied for the best. No other outside linebacker had more passes defensed than Marshall’s five, and to cement the level of his impact, Marshall finished with the third-best Pass Rushing Productivity, the fourth-best Run Stop Percentage, the top mark in Tackling Efficiency, and the fifth-best Cover Snaps per Reception.
What the Broncos have in Marshall might be a three-down linebacker with no real weakness to his game. Next season he’ll move to the strong side inside linebacker position in Philips’ 3-4 defense, which should play more to his strengths in the coverage and run-stopping departments and he could be a force for the Broncos’ defense for years to come.