Last season, one of the few pleasant surprises on the Ravens offense was undrafted free agent wide receiver, Marlon Brown.
Coming into the University of Georgia, Brown was one of the top recruits in the nation. Rivals had him as the fifth best receiver, while Scout had him as the second — indicating that essentially unanimously, Brown was expected to be a difference maker. Brown was the top player in the state of Tennessee, and possessed offers from Florida, Ohio State, Tennessee, Florida State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Stanford, LSU, Michigan, Alabama and USC — among others.
Suffice to say, coming out of high school at “6-foot-5, 205-pounds” (take every recruiting measurement with several grains of salt), Marlon Brown’s ceiling was perceived to be quite high.
And as for his athleticism, he was a two-sport star at Harding Academy in Memphis. He even dropped 35 points and grabbed nine rebounds to secure the high school state championship.
How athletic was Brown? Here’s an excerpt from a Knoxville News article from 2007:
Harding Academy called a screen pass to Brown. After breaking a handful of tackles, finding nearly imperceptible running lanes and sprinting past defenders to the end zone, Brown led [Harding Academy coach Ryan] Derrick to re-evaluate his game plan.
“We had to change our offense and find ways to get this kid the ball,” Derrick said…
It worked. Brown caught 41 passes for 870 yards and six touchdowns and rushed 56 times for 640 yards and 10 touchdowns. (And, by the way, Brown also had a touchdown on an interception and a fumble return).
On the basketball court, Brown is a double-double man, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. Still, Brown doesn’t carry any delusions where his athletic future lies. He’s the first to admit that he’s better at football than basketball. Why?
“I’m 6-5 and I’m a receiver,” Brown answers matter-of-factly, trying not to imply that a dumb question has just been asked. Derrick agrees that size is the difference. He’s seen all too many swear that Brown must be 5-11 – not 6-5 – after seeing him on tape.
“He’s one of the most skilled kids you’re ever going to see,” Derrick said. “Obviously what makes him unique is he’s that skilled in a 6-foot-5 body. You just don’t see a kid that size make those moves. That’s why he’s getting the attention he’s getting.”
That praise doesn’t come easily. Marlon Brown’s coach was right in saying that 6-foot-5 athletic players don’t come along often. And when they do come along, they often make their presence known. Just ask Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Keyshawn Johnson, Vincent Jackson and Randy Moss.
Despite Marlon Brown’s immense hype coming out of high school, he struggled to find the field in his first three seasons. Before Georgia fans knew it, Brown was heading into his senior season having tallied only 28 receptions for 382 yards (some fans questioned Georgia’s decision not to redshirt Brown his freshman year). It’s safe to say that, when taking into account Brown’s offer sheet and potential in high school, he had been a disappointment.
His senior season represented a crossroads, and Bulldog faithful didn’t let it go without discussion. Brown had dealt with some issues dropping passes, and as that article points out, more than a third of his yards in 2011 came in one game.
In the first eight games of 2012, Brown began to flash that potential. Although he wasn’t setting the world on fire, his 27 receptions for 469 yards were both one catch less than his career total to that point, but also represented the most big-play ability (17.4 YPC, compared to 12.6 in his first three seasons) in Browns’ college tenure. In those eight games, Brown recorded three of his four career 100-yard efforts, including a 113 yard outing against Ole Miss. Unfortunately, that game resulted in a torn ACL, and hampered both his breakout campaign, and his NFL Draft prospects.
But did Browns’ ACL tear severely hamper his athletic ability? Based on the things Browns’ high school coach said, there seems to be a disconnect between his high school days and the player that wore purple and black last season. It is only fair, then, to look at one of Browns better games from 2012, and see whether there is a noticeable difference in his game then, compared to last year. That is, can Ravens fans expect another gear from Marlon Brown this season?
In this video, Brown is seen lined up in the slot and the outside of the field — similar to last season in Baltimore. This is a useful skill, and it is something that gives the offense plenty of options when moving around such a big target. That being said, Browns’ ability after the catch wasn’t much different from what we saw last season. Even though his knees were underneath him at this time, he never appeared to be the type to make a quick cut or ankle breaking juke. With some players, ACL injuries can linger after they’ve healed if only for the mental affect. In the above video, Brown appears somewhat plodding in the open field and not at all explosive. That isn’t to say his performance wasn’t impressive, but the highlights screamed “reliable target” more than “athletic freak.”
For what it’s worth, former Raven receiver Qadry Ismail thinks Brown is set to be one of the breakout stars for the Ravens.
“Here’s a guy that came out as an undrafted rookie and just came out and blossomed,” said Ismail during a Comcast SportsNet segment. “You talk about the versatility of this young man — you put him in the slot, you’re going to get some strong production; you put him on the outside, he absolutely can separate from the corners on the outside lane. And then, at the same time, you put him in the redzone, he has a sense and an awareness for the endzone. Strong hands — goes up, makes tough catches. Great catch radius. As much as we talk about these other guys, I think it’s going to be Marlon Brown that’s gonna have a greater impact for this new offense that’s going to be installed for Joe Flacco.
“Marlon Brown, very underrated.”
The one thing in that quote that’s unproven is the ability to separate on the outside, and that is something that could come with time and confidence to his now fully-healed knee.
Marlon Brown’s ceiling has been subject to great fluctuation since 2007, but it seems there are some who still find it to be very high. I for one tend to stick to the side that sees him as a useful receiver to have in the arsenal — but not a go-to receiver. Ismail is right to talk about his production in the redzone, however, I almost view him as a bit of a tweener both in the slot and on the outside. In the slot, he doesn’t possess the shiftiness of players like Campanaro . On the outside, he hasn’t yet shown the athleticism to consistently separate, despite what Qadry Ismail says. At 6-foot-5, Brown certainly provides a sizable target for quarterbacks, so at a certain point, he only has to be so open.
This season will be very interesting for Marlon Brown. His production last season has been marked by some as the product of a season plagued with offensive injuries. In that vacuum, somebody had to produce. Others feel it was the beginning of a fruitful career that started as an undrafted receiver.
I’m somewhere in between. I really hope that I’m wrong and Marlon asserts himself as the standout all-around receiver the Ravens need long-term. And in the back of my head, I can’t help but hear his high school coach’s words: “You just don’t see a kid that size make those moves.”
I can still see his reception against the Minnesota Vikings in the back of that snowy endzone. “Wow,” I thought.
I’m ready to be wowed again, Marlon. Make me a believer.