Every time wide receiver Brandon Marshall finds a new team, he goes off. The only problem is how often he finds himself on a new team.
Four years after being drafted by the Denver Broncos, he was traded to the Miami Dolphins, who used him for two seasons before trading him to the Chicago Bears, who got three years out of him and sent him to the New York Jets. This year, he has signed with the New York Giants — actually the first time he has switched teams as a free agent.
Looking at what he did in his first season as a starter with his first four franchises, the Giants could be in for a real treat with Marshall.
There aren’t going to be too many Giants fans upset if Marshall comes in and produces at that level. Looking at that chart, his year in Miami looks pedestrian, despite going for over 1,000 yards on a high volume of catches. Expanding out to include his entire career after seeing only 37 targets as a rookie, he looks like a first-ballot Hall of Fame player if you just look at the numbers and cover up the column listing his teams.
For the Giants, the worry of having Marshall wear out his welcome — as he did in every single previous stop — isn’t much of a concern. Signing him a two-year deal, the Giants would only be on the hook for $1 million if they decide to cut him after his first season. At his age, Marshall is probably more likely to retire and remain in New York as a television analyst than he is to go searching for a sixth NFL team.
However, his first season with the Giants will be much different than his previous changes of scenery. Some are obvious, and some less so. As he looks to make the playoffs for the first time in his career, it is important to consider those differences when trying to project what type of season he will have.
Odell Beckham Jr.
It goes without saying that for the first time in Marshall’s illustrious career (other than his rookie year), he won’t be the No. 1 option on his offense. In his first season with each team, Marshall received 170, 146, 192, and 173 targets, respectively. Those numbers aren’t just high, but historically high, other than the Miami season, which was simply a ton.
There isn’t much chance Marshall sees opportunities like that in New York. Beckham hasn’t even cracked the 170-target mark, a number Marshall has gone over four times in his career — twice by the time he was Beckham’s age. (Beckham would have been on pace for 173 targets had he played all 16 games in his rookie year).
Sterling Shepard was second on the team in targets with 105 in 2016, which would be a career low for Marshall if we continue to discount his rookie year. Shepard is still on the team, and likely would have expected his own opportunities to grow in his second season as a pro.
Even if he could somehow find 150-plus targets in this offense, there will be some natural decline for Marshall. He will be in his age-33 season with the Giants, and coming off his worst season since winning a starting job in 2007. He caught only 59 passes for 788 yards and three touchdowns despite playing in 15 games with the Jets a year ago. That is the least number of passes he has caught as a starter, and tied for the fewest touchdowns he scored (other than his two touchdowns as a rookie.) He had 60 more yards than he had in his last season in Chicago, but needed two extra games and 20 extra targets to get it.
Part of the blame can go to the quarterbacks. Although Rya Fitzpatrick got 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns out of him a year ago, Fitzpatrick started the season terribly before eventually being replaced by Bryce Petty. Marshall went over 100 yards twice in his first five games with Fitzpatrick, but his numbers waned terribly as the season went on.
His catch percentage on the season was only 46.1, a career low by a wide margin, and highlighted by performance like his 11-target, one-catch effort against the Dolphins in December. He also struggled to get downfield, with a longest catch of 41 yards, the shortest mark of his career.
There isn’t much history of 33-year-old receivers improving on a down year like that vaulting back into superstar status. Even if we account for the uptick in talent at quarterback — a case can be made that Eli Manning is the best he has played with — Marshall is still not the player he was when he was causing havoc in his 20s.
One final reason Marshall won’t have a big year is because of the investment the Giants made to get him. The Broncos drafted Marshall and found out quickly they had grabbed a gem in the middle of the draft and capitalized on his talent.
The Dolphins, Bears and Jets all traded for a player who they thought would be the final piece on offense, a weapon that would immediately put them in the playoff conversation. All four teams considered him their future at the wide receiver position, and their best chance to win games in the short term. The last three teams parted with significant draft picks to bring him in, and were therefore invested in his success.
The Giants didn’t give up anything other than a little bit of cap room that could have gone toward a linebacker, running back or reserve offensive lineman. There is opportunity cost there, but nothing like giving up future draft picks for a chance to win now. On top of that, the Giants have Beckham, who they invested a recent first-round pick in and have prioritized as the face of the franchise going forward.
Shepard was a second-round pick a year ago, and they used their first-round pick this year to take Evan Engram, a tight end who basically replicates Marshall’s size and skill set. Of those four players, the Giants are least invested in getting Marshall the ball.
That isn’t to say that he won’t be No. 2 on the depth chart to start the season, but it means there will be little incentive to force him the ball. If the Giants are winning games off his production, that is one thing. However, if the team is out of playoff contention — for the 12th consecutive year of Marshall’s career — this is the first time his coaching staff will have real reason to jump him on the depth chart.
Even last season, when the Jets were out of contention almost from the start of the season, Marshall kept getting high-volume targets to the end of the season.
With the Giants, those targets would be more wisely allocated to Shepard and Engram. Who knows, Shepard and Engram might be able to do more at this point in their careers to help the team into the playoffs than Marshall will. I’m not convinced that, in a vacuum, Marshall is washed up, and I still could imagine him going for over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns in the NFL.
The reality is, this isn’t anything like his first year with any of his previous four teams.
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