Brandon Marshall has come a long way in just four years of NFL football. After being drafted by Jacksonville in 2012, his high hopes of becoming a starting linebacker briefly faded, but his faith in himself never wavered. Now, after a fateful decision, two seasons of mostly practice squad work and an explosive year ending on a sour note with an injury, Marshall has become the elite linebacker he knew he could be.
His success in Denver has been a blessing for everyone involved and a scenario that was close to never happening.
“You got to choose between Oakland, Jacksonville and Denver. You’ve got ten minutes,” his agent told him over the phone as Marshall sat at dinner with some Jaguars teammates.
He sat there mulling his options. The Raiders offered possibly a faster path to playing time and he knew the Jaguars would offer a sure spot on the practice squad. He admitted he knew nothing about the Broncos so he phoned a friend. Former Broncos and Jaguars nose tackle Terrance Knighton told the young player that if he came to Denver and worked hard he would be fine.
Just like that, Marshall picked up his phone and made a life-changing decision. “I called my agent back and said ‘Look man, I’m going to Denver.’”
The decision led to where he now sits. Through four weeks of the season, Marshall, despite screws in his repaired foot, is atop the Pro Football Focus rankings as the best inside linebacker in the NFL, on the league’s top-ranked defense. Despite his humble beginnings, Marshall is playing at an exceptional level and his approach to the game is at an all-time high.
“It is through the roof,” Marshall declared Thursday of his confidence. “I always say experience is the best teacher. You can’t teach experience. So from last year to this year, me coming into games, I’m a lot more comfortable. I know what the NFL is about. I know what the game is. I understand the magnitude of games. I understand certain looks and certain personnel and how to play those things out in my mind. I think that the experience that I had last year was a huge thing for me. Huge, man. It is only going to make me a better player.”
His current level of play was not always a sure thing and his arrival to Denver didn’t signal the end of his struggles. He worked hard on the practice squad under then-head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, until he got his opportunity. Fox continued to encourage him and in the 2013 regular season finale, against the team he almost went to in Oakland, he got his first shot at linebacker for the Broncos.
“When I got up against the Raiders in 2013, I got in on defense for the first time of my career. Then the next year they we’re confident enough to just throw me in the game and I started the all last year,” he said. “I think I owe a lot to coach Fox, Del Rio, Richard Smith. Those guys took a chance on me and I will never forget them for it. I will be forever grateful for that.”
That chance he was given in 2013 turned out to be all he really needed. Since then he has proved his worth. In 2014, Marshall was leading the team in tackles with 110 and covering the field fantastically after starting linebackers Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan went down with injuries. He finished the season ranked fourth among outside linebackers, per PFF.
But Marshall would also suffer an injury. A Lisfranc injury to his foot in Week 15 sidelined him for the final two regular season games in 2014 before he suited up and played through pain in the divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. Through a long offseason of rehabilitation, he has come back with a more well-rounded game despite still feeling the effects of his injury.
“I actually really did expect it,” Marshall said of his quick start in 2015. “I definitely expected to play at a high level but I didn’t expect to have to deal with the other issues. I’ve managed those well and I’m just trying to continue to build up my leg strength.”
In the offseason there was heavy speculation as to whether Marshall could get back to his 2014 form. Through his first four weeks of the 2015 season he has displayed that he already there. He has simply been everywhere on the football field. His overall grade of 8.7 is significantly higher than the second ranked inside linebacker on PFF and he is playing extremely well against the run. In Week 3 against the Detroit Lions, Marshall totaled 12 tackles; 11 of them were solo. It was a masterful performance, but one head coach Gary Kubiak insists did not surprise him.
“I knew what type of player he was. Obviously, we had to bring him along the right way,” Kubiak said of Marshall Thursday. “He is so smart and I think [linebackers coach] Reggie [Herring] is just a fine football coach. He does a great job with them. I’m not surprised he’s playing so well. He is a hell of a player.”
Marshall has battled through the rigors of what the NFL can throw at a young player and has come out looking like a supreme talent. Taking a chance brought him to Denver. He took his opportunity and tackled it with ferocity and the Broncos are certainly better for it. On a defense that boasts a ridiculous amount of talent, Marshall may be one of the most important pieces. That fact, one that was not certain, is now set in stone in the middle of the new “Orange Crush” defense, and it’s wearing No. 54.