Why the Ravens' Marlon Brown Will Have to Wait for His Potential Breakout Campaign

Marlon Brown had a strong debut in 2013 and seems to have all the physical tools, but he's not in the right situation to succeed yet.

Fantasy football is ultimately just a game, which means it attracts those who enjoy other games. The competitive nature of fantasy sports attracts those who like poker, board games, and even video games. So it's no surprise when lots of fantasy football teams wind up looking a lot like Madden teams.

That includes an infatuation with young players who have "skills" and "upside." It's part of the motivation behind Sammy Watkins and T.Y. Hilton's elevated average draft positions at the moment, as fantasy players often love the video-game-like skills they possess. This logic carries over into a generally flawed line of thinking about all football players.

A lot of fans of the sport see NFL player progression the same way it appears in Madden games. Players have "potential ratings" (often based on their draft position) and will improve in some sort of linear fashion until they reach the mid-stages of their NFL careers. If you draft Sammy Watkins to your Madden team, you expect his numbers to climb at a fairly regular basis until he becomes a superstar.

However, there are countless cases of this not proving to be true in the NFL. Michael Clayton had an 80-catch season with off-the-charts production as a rookie, and never saw more than 40 receptions again in his career. Greg Little and Stephen Hill were drafted as athletic freaks and showed signs of promise very early on but never progressed, and are now mere afterthoughts in their offenses.

Ultimately, success in fantasy football has as much to do with opportunity as it does with talent. So even if there's a player you see as a breakout star in the making, that doesn't necessarily mean his coaches feel the same way. This couldn't be more true of the wide receiver situation in Baltimore, where second-year receiver Marlon Brown seems to have the physical tools to be a solid wide receiving option, but he's buried on a depth chart behind two veterans named Smith.

Ice Up, Son

Torrey Smith returns in Baltimore as the undisputed top option on the passing offense, and for good reason. The speedster finished 16th in our Reception Net Expected Points metric last season, and should see more of the same in 2014.

The towering Marlon Brown seemed to be a solid pick as the second receiver for the Ravens, as the 6'5" rookie found the end zone a few times last season and generally played well enough to earn a spot ahead of Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson. But an offseason addition to the Baltimore roster bumped him back down a peg.

Steve Smith, the former Carolina receiver, joined Baltimore as a free agent this offseason, and in doing so became the "other Ravens wide receiver to own" behind Torrey Smith.

But why? Smith is an aging veteran, and Brown is a young player who seemingly should only get better, right? The problem with that is that Smith was brought in despite Brown already being on the roster, and that's because Smith is the better player, even at an advanced age.

Chasing the Smiths

Torrey Smith outperformed both of his fellow receivers last year, and by a wide margin. No one is disputing Torrey's role as the top receiver in Baltimore. But just how far is Steve with the second job?

In Carolina last season, Steve finished ahead of T.Y. Hilton, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson in per-target efficiency, and wound up 20th out of 37 wideouts with 100 or more targets in that metric. Being in the middle of a pack led by some of the best athletes in the game like Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas is certainly not a bad place to be.

More importantly, Steve Smith outclassed Brown in every way. He had more volume, more production, more consistency and more efficiency. Here are the numbers, so you can see for yourself.

NameRecRec NEPRec NEP/RecRec NEP/TargetRec Success Rate
Marlon Brown4948.550.990.5981.63%
Steve Smith6474.561.170.6884.38%

Smith has the advantage in every area, despite posting numbers on the low-end compared to his career averages. The Carolina offense was very run-heavy in 2013, ending up with one of the five-lowest pass-to-run ratios in the league.

Brown, on the other hand, was playing for a team with the 10th highest pass-to-run ratio, which resulted in the Ravens running a total of 151 more passing plays than the Panthers. Despite this increase in volume around him, Brown wasn't able to stand out on a relatively thin depth chart for a team also lacking at tight end.

Assigning Value

Thankfully, Brown isn't being drafted like other "potential breakout stars" like Cordarrelle Patterson and T.Y. Hilton, so if you're intrigued by his size and speed and are ready to count out Steve Smith, he's available for the taking very late in your drafts.

But there's a good reason for his present value, which is the presence of two veterans with the same name and the same advantage over him: they're both better football players.

Marlon Brown is a fine dynasty pick and a decent late-round flier as the likely replacement to either Smith in the event of an injury, but don't expect a huge season while he remains this low on the passing priority list in Baltimore.

Last season, the Ravens were throwing anyone who looked like a receiver out in passing routes, giving a decent number of targets to Tandon Doss, Brandon Stokley and Deonte Thompson. This year, health assumed, they won't have that same issue, and should be able to divide their targets up among a qualified group of pass catchers in Smith, Smith and a healthy Dennis Pitta.

Brown may even see fewer looks than the running backs for the Ravens, as the team seeks to re-establish its run-heavy identity from previous seasons. So while you may be attracted to Marlon Brown as a talent, it's probably a bit too early to bank on him as a fantasy asset.

Oh, and Steve Smith is still pretty good. You should probably consider drafting him.