The Ravens-related noise began as soon as word leaked out Thursday night that the New York Jets were releasing wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
An accomplished veteran with size and physicality, the six-time Pro Bowl selection has long fit the mold of the receiver the Ravens seek this offseason, but it’s more complicated than that. The 12th-year wideout is an interesting case study for an organization desperate to get better after missing the playoffs in three of the last four years.
Of course, the conversation needs to begin — and could promptly end — with Marshall’s history of domestic violence, an issue the Ravens have deliberately spoken out against since their mishandling of the Ray Rice saga in 2014. Owner Steve Bisciotti has made it clear that his team will avoid players with this type of history, and it’s an admirable position despite the roster needing as much talent as it can find these days.
There should be no dismissing Marshall’s disturbing past, but he has worked to rehabilitate his image with no reported legal problems since 2012. Revealing in 2011 that he suffers from borderline personality disorder, Marshall has been an outspoken advocate for mental illness awareness, an issue that’s been neglected in our society for too long.
But no writer is likely to sway your stance on Marshall the person or any other individual with such a history. Ultimately, Bisciotti and the Ravens will make the call, knowing they’ll be criticized by many if they sign him or bashed by others if they choose to pass on him and seemingly ignore the strides that he’s made off the field over the last five years.
If the Ravens do decide they’re comfortable with the person Marshall is in 2017, then what?
An obvious victim of the Jets’ disastrous quarterback situation in 2016, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound wideout caught only 59 passes for 788 yards and three touchdowns after making 109 catches for 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns in his debut season with New York. Few would dispute that Marshall has more left in the tank, but how much more and at what price?
The Ravens’ history with Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith makes it seem like a foregone conclusion that Marshall — who will turn 33 later this month — would be the latest success story of a receiver coming to Baltimore and thriving in the November of his career, but there’s no guarantee of that occurring. For every Smith or Mason who thrived well into his mid-30s — keep in mind that the Ravens acquired Boldin when he was only 29 and jettisoned him when he was 32 — there are other accomplished receivers who saw their production fall off a cliff much sooner.
Possessing a similar skill set and size to Marshall, former Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson caught 109 passes for 1,407 yards as a 32-year-old in 2013 and then saw his production dip to 85 receptions for 936 yards a year later. Citing the uncertainty at quarterback for the Texans and the emergence of the younger DeAndre Hopkins as the primary reasons for his 2014 decline, AFC South rival Indianapolis signed Johnson to a three-year, $21 million deal and cut him after just one 503-yard season.
The incomparable Randy Moss went from a 1,264-yard receiving season as a 32-year-old in 2009 to being a player who was all but finished a year later.
Even with some of the all-time greats, it’s a slippery slope when a receiver gets to this age.
The Ravens should proceed with caution, especially in a receiver market with only so many attractive options and plenty of teams flush with cash. Marshall still averaged 13.4 yards per catch in 2016 — slightly less than his 13.8 mark the previous year — but that kind of overall drop-off in production from a player his age shouldn’t be completely overlooked, either.
Marshall the player appears to be a good fit for any team that’s only one accomplished receiver away from serious contention in 2017, but are the Ravens in that kind of position with so many needs on both sides of the ball and limited resources? Can they reasonably expect Marshall to age as well as Smith did when Baltimore could be better positioned to compete for a Super Bowl in 2018? Would a younger veteran such as the 30-year-old Pierre Garcon be a better investment for the next few years?
It’s not an easy answer.
As much as the focus has been on whether the Ravens should go after Marshall, it might be more relevant to ask if they would be one of his top choices. Baltimore certainly remains an attractive destination, but is it still so appealing to prompt Marshall to forgo a potential bidding war in the way Smith did three years ago?
We know all of this is moot if Bisciotti and the Ravens decide not to look beyond Marshall’s past with domestic violence and other off-field transgressions. But if they determine he can be the right player, general manager Ozzie Newsome better be sure he’s paying the right price as they’re currently pondering the future of several veterans being paid more for their past accomplishments than their current value.
Marshall very well could be the right fit, but it’s a continuation down the path of relying on players well past the age of 30, something for which the organization has been criticized.
It worked with Mason, Boldin, and Smith, but history isn’t guaranteed to repeat itself if they choose to sign another accomplished receiver past his prime.