Secret Superstars: Denver Broncos

A young linebacker stepped in when needed and showed enough to earn the tag as Denver's Secret Superstar.

| 2 years ago

Secret Superstars: Denver Broncos

SS15-DENThe 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.

Every-Down Weapon

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.




| Analyst

Bryson has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, and has also been a contributor to 120 Sports.

  • Malachi

    thats my doggggg

  • AJ

    Not sure if this really follows the idea of the Secret Superstar because Marshall isn’t a secret. He’s already proven to be a great player for an entire year. I would have expected a player who didn’t play full time last year, like Bradley Roby or Virgil Green.

  • humper-dinkle dinkle-humper

    Denver’s inside linebacking group (Trevathan, Marshall, Davis) are interesting. None of them are going to be dominant backers and headlining stars, but they are high-quality starters across the board. The strategy seems to be drafting low or finding them in UDFA, then developing them. This allows Denver to put money into other positions like cornerback, OLB, QB, WR. It will be interesting to see if last year’s rookies drafted at the position continue this trend.

    Actually, when you look at Elway’s management, he seems to use the same approach for RB and offensive line. Maybe there is enough talent valued low enough that draft picks and free agent money doesn’t need to be thrown at them? It would be really cool to see an analysis by PFF of the business strategies of different teams. New England, Denver, SF would all be interesting . . . as would the basket-cases like Jacksonville or Oakland.

  • Jaguars28

    Gene Smith’s only hit and we got rid of him…

  • Thomas Bell

    From my hazy memory, he played strong from the first game on….so it’s inspiring to see, in retrospect that he turned such a big corner in his development and execution after the Bye in week four. Never know when the light-bulb is going to turn on for a player — and that he is so complete in all phases of the position, suggests the light bulb really clicked on.