How Brandon Marshall Remains an Elite NFL Receiver

Even has he gets older, Marshall is still a dominant receiver in the NFL. How is he doing it?

Age isn’t kind to those who catch passes in the NFL.

While we tend to view the age of 30 as a magical drop-off point for running back production, not many pass catchers excel past that mark either. Just 10 players were targeted at least 100 times last season at the age of 30 or older. Only four of those 10 were wide receivers. Half were tight ends, and the other was a running back.

The most targeted of that group was New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Marshall, in his first season with his fourth team, was an indispensable asset to the Jets’ passing game during 2015 and might again have to help carry the load for the offense in 2016.

Based on what he did during the 2015 season, there’s little reason to suspect Marshall can’t do it again.

Nothing But a Number

The interesting bit about Marshall is that he wasn't important simply because of his volume. He was also efficient in that high-volume environment.

Let’s go back to that group of four wide receivers who saw at least 100 targets at or above age 30. By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the number of expected points a player adds to his team's total over the course of a season, Marshall was easily the most efficient while being the most targeted by a wide margin

Receiver Age Targets Reception NEP/Target
Anquan Boldin 35 111 0.51
Larry Fitzgerald 32 145 0.68
Brandon Marshall 31 173 0.76
Calvin Johnson 30 149 0.71

Marshall’s Reception NEP per target ranked 10th in the league among the 32 receivers who saw at least 100 targets on the year. He came in just below Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and also three places below teammate Eric Decker. But this isn’t about Decker being more efficient than his teammate. Really, it’s a wonder either one of those receivers were able to pull off what they did last season at the rate they were involved.

Marshall and Decker were the intended targets on 50.5 percent of all passes thrown by Jets quarterbacks last season -- mostly from Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Geno Smith got 42 of them in there too. While combining for just over half the targets, the receiving duo accounted for 60.6 percent of the team’s receiving yards and 78.8 percent of the team’s touchdown catches. Marshall led the duo with 1,502 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns.

...And You Can’t Teach That

One thing Marshall will continually have going for him regardless of his age is his size. At 6’4”, Marshall has a distinct size advantage over just about every defender who will try to match up with him in coverage. Turn on any Jets broadcast and the first time Marshall out jumps a defender for a pass, the announcers will list the size difference between the receiver and the defender. It’s basically clockwork.

This can be advantageous all over the field, but it especially comes into play in the red zone. Marshall was the third-most targeted player in the red zone last season with 25 throws his way behind only DeAndre Hopkins and Decker, who both had 29 each.

But like in those other categories, Marshall was one of the most efficient in this scenario. There were 10 wide receivers who were targeted at least 20 times inside the 20-yard line, and Marshall’s Reception NEP per target was the third-best in that group.

Receiver Red Zone Targets Rec NEP/Target
DeAndre Hopkins 29 0.88
Eric Decker 29 0.62
Brandon Marshall 25 0.95
Antonio Brown 24 0.87
Jarvis Landry 23 0.31
Allen Robinson 22 1.35
Julio Jones 22 0.77
Randall Cobb 21 0.66
Odell Beckham 20 1.00
Demaryius Thomas 20 0.51

Again, like at other parts of the field, the production of the Jets’ duo was significantly better than the overall offense. Inside the red zone, Fitzpatrick’s Passing NEP per drop back was a paltry 0.34, while Smith was at 0.43 on just five attempts.

Marshall doesn’t only use his size to gain an advantage inside the 20, though. Part athleticism and part scheme allow Marshall to find some other ways to excel around the goal line.

Take this play against the Patriots. It’s first-and-10 at the 3-yard line. Marshall starts as the outside receiver in a trips bunch to the right of the formation. Before the snap, he motions to the other side of the field, and the ball is snapped as he crosses the field. By the time the pass is thrown, the defender following Marshall runs into a legal pick by Quincy Enunwa, and Marshall gets a free path to the end zone. It’s a great play call and helps shows some of the different ways Marshall can contribute. (Videos courtesy NFL Game Pass.)

Adjusting for Value

Another way Marshall uses some of his freakish athleticism is through body control. He has an ability to adjust to ball thrown a little off target, and that gets more balls in his hands on plays when maybe it shouldn’t. That’s a nice skill to have when Fitzpatrick is at quarterback, someone not exactly known for his accuracy. It’s probably an even better skill to have with Geno Smith on the other end.

Drops were considered an issue last season, but between this being a relatively new problem, the amount he was targeted, and the passes he grabs that other receivers wouldn’t, a few balls that hit his hands aren’t a massive issue in the big picture.

Marshall’s not a huge yards-after-the-catch threat -- he was just 25th in total yards after the catch in 2015 -- but his ability to adjust to balls in the air gives him a better chance to gain some extra yards than a typical receiver would see with his routes.

Take this play against Washington in Week 6. Fitzpatrick underthrows a pass, but Marshall is able to stop his momentum, get back behind cornerback Bashaud Breeland, and make the catch. Thanks to that, he’s able to turn up the field and run.

Is that exact play an extreme example? Maybe. Was he helped by Dashon Goldson going NFL Blitz on his teammate? Sure, but this type of play isn’t rare for Marshall.

Here he is at the top of the screen working off the press of Prince Amukamara of the New York Giants. It’s a back-shoulder throw, and Marshall again stops his momentum and sets himself up to make a turn upfield as soon as the ball is in his hands. It’s not a massive run for a touchdown, but he gets another 10 yards after the catch thanks to his positioning.

Marshall is still dominant across the entire field. Even as he mostly lines up on the outside, he’s not a stranger to crossing routes to keep the offense in rhythm.

He may be on the wrong side of the age curve as he enters the 2016 season, but there is still a lot of good play left before the decline starts to hit.