Brandon Marshall recently did an interview with ESPN in which he stated that "it pisses me off that no one recognizes that [he is one of the best receivers in the NFL.]" A few years ago, I don't think anyone would have argued with that claim. In 2012, he had 118 receptions for over 1500 yards and 11 touchdowns. Almost no one cared, however, due to the fact that he was overshadowed by Calvin Johnson, who set a new NFL record in receiving yards in a season that could be described as the best single season performance by a wide receiver in NFL history. Meanwhile, Marshall finished 11th all time in receptions and 35th all time in yards (despite many players holding multiple spots ahead of him.) And he sandwiched that career year between two 1200+ yard seasons.
Coming into last season, Brandon Marshall had played in all 48 games over the last seasons without missing a start. During this period, Marshall compiled over 275 receptions for over 4,000 yards and 29 TDs. He did this receiving passes from a mixture of Matt Moore, Chad Henne, Jay Cutler, and Josh McCown. It came as no surprise to anyone who followed his career, in which he had compiled 1,000 yard seasons in every season after his rookie season, in which he started only a handful of games. He averaged over 72 yards per game in every one of those seasons, compiling at least 80 catches each year. How good has he been? Marshall is 9th among active players in career receptions and 11th in yardage. Sounds pretty good right? Well Marshall is the youngest player in the top 12 in receptions (Calvin Johnson sits at 13 and is one year younger than Marshall) and Marshall is the second youngest in the top 15 in yardage (Megatron again.) Plus, he falls in the top 30 multiple times for single season receiving records and holds the single game receptions record with 21. In fact, at just 31 years old, Marshall is easily within the top 50 of both categories all time and will likely work his way up the ladder quickly before his retirement.
So how is it even a question if Marshall is an elite receiver or not? He put up 7 straight 1,000 yard seasons with 3 different teams. He's done it with every awful QB you can think of who didn't play for the Jets, and he has his name on the list with all time stars. He'll have a legitimate shot at a bust in Canton at this rate and yet he was traded for less than a 5th round pick and generated minimal hype. How could his name not be mentioned with studs like Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant? Well, there are a lot of reasons.
First of all, Marshall is old. Well okay, not old. Just older. Marshall is at least 4 years older than any of those players, which is a pretty large gap when you consider the length of NFL careers (and 9 years older than OBJ.) In NFL terms, Marshall is getting up there in age and approaching decline. Secondly, Marshall doesn't generate big plays. Now when I say big plays, I don't mean TDs or gamechangers. He has certainly done that for the Jets already. Marshall doesn't consistently score long touchdowns like those other guys. Marshall only has 2 seasons with a 70+ yard touchdown (one of which constituted almost 25% of his yardage and 50% of his touchdowns as a rookie) and only 5 seasons with a 50+ yard reception in his career. He doesn't have the breakaway speed that he used to, and Marshall was never really a speed guy in the first place. Marshall has always had size, strength, and impressive hands on his side, but he has never had the open field running skills that Demaryius Thomas or OBJ possess. It's just not the type of player that Marshall is, and it tends to generate fewer headlines. In addition, Marshall has never led the league in receptions, yardage, or touchdowns. Marshall always seems to finish in the top 5 or so in just about every category, but he never manages to be the top guy. That doesn't help your publicity. Especially when you've never even made the playoffs once in your long NFL career.
Then for the big one. The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of league. People only remember what you did for them recently. Sean Lee's return to the Cowboys after two years limited by injuries was not highly publicized this year. It should have been. He has transformed that unit and proven that he is still one of the best. Marshall is coming off of his worst statistical season since he entered the league as a rookie. Marshall has averaged about 6.23 receptions for 78.3 yards per game in his career if you ignore his limited rookie season. In 2013, he averaged just under 4.7 receptions for 55.5 yards per game while battling injuries through 13 games. He missed 1,000 yards for the first time since his rookie season and lost his 2 year streak of 10+ TD seasons. Even while battling through injuries, he could have met both benchmarks if he hadn't been hospitalized early in a week 14 matchup with the Cowboys, ending his season.
Fast forward to 2014 and Marshall is the forgotten man. One season hampered by injuries and miserable QB play from a reeling Jay Cutler and it seems like he's no longer in elite company. However, the real question becomes what constitutes a "top receiver" in the NFL. Does this mean a WR1? Marshall certainly has that. You have to game plan for Marshall and he has proven that he can transform an offense even when playing against corners of Joe Haden and Vontae Davis' caliber. Does "top receiver" mean a top 3-5 wideout in the NFL? Then I would have to say no, Brandon, not anymore. Marshall hasn't ranked in the top 4 in any receiving category since 2012. He doesn't have the all around skills and room to grow that those other guys have and I could probably list at least 5 WRs that the majority of players, coaches, and fans would agree have more impact on games. That said, Marshall definitely has a case for a top 10 receiver in a league that has hundreds of receivers on rosters. That easily places Marshall in the "top receivers" category as far as I'm concerned, but if Marshall doesn't think he's getting the recognition he deserves, he's more than welcome to use that as motivation this season. Not that it appears he needs any extra.