On the NFL
December 28, 2012
Forget Calvin Johnson versus Charles Tillman for a minute.
Let's pit Calvin Johnson against Brandon Marshall.
Viewed strictly on the field, who would you rather have?
Start here: Most teams in the NFL probably would love to have either.
"Either one is a 'reason you win' type of player," said one general manager who has studied both.
"Both are special," said Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who was head coach of the Lions when the team picked Johnson. "They both like the ball. Both have great hands, size, and leaping ability. They have the whole package. And they both love football."
They have similar production this year. Marshall has just four fewer catches than Johnson, but is 426 yards off Johnson's record setting pace. Marshall also has six more touchdowns.
But they really aren't as similar as players as you might think.
"The only thing that is similar is their size," Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said of the 6-foot-41/2 Marshall and the 6-5 Johnson. "Calvin is the downfield guy. He's definitely going to outjump you. Brandon is the more complete receiver. He runs all the routes, the underneath routes, the slants, takes out defensive backs, runs over them. He's strong, and he has strong hands. Brandon is more physical."
Here is how Johnson and Marshall stack up in areas NFL scouts judge receivers.
Downfield playmaking ability
This is where Johnson separates himself from Marshall and every other receiver in the NFL, and why he is the best wide receiver in the NFL. You can't teach size and speed, and Johnson has a better combination of it than anyone.
If Marshall beats a cornerback deep, it's usually because he either deceives him or gets him off balance by being physical with him. Johnson routinely blows by corners.
Whereas Marshall is more likely to take the fight out of a defense with a series of body blows, Johnson can deliver a knockout punch more effectively.
"Calvin's faster," Winfield said. "You have to respect him and make sure he doesn't take the top off the defense. You have to make him catch the ball underneath and tackle him there. Anything over the top, you are in trouble."
Marshall presents more challenges to cornerbacks than Johnson because he runs every route in the tree with precision.
The general manager said Marshall has better feet, bend and balance in and out of his cuts.
Marshall is savvier in how he separates. He has to be because he isn't as explosive an athlete as Johnson.
Both players have good hands.
Each has dropped 10 passes this year, according to STATS. But that's understandable considering the number of passes coming their way. Marshall has had a drop on 5.6 percent of the balls thrown to him; Johnson on 5.3 percent.
What is interesting is Marshall's hands are more reliable on certain routes and Johnson's on others.
"Brandon has better, stronger more consistent hands and is at his best in jump situations or when he is posted up facing the QB," the general manager said. "Calvin appears to have the edge in some over the shoulder situations and the off target, contested end zone catch."
Yards after catch
Both are proficient in this area, but in different ways. Johnson is more likely to run away from defenders with a sudden first step and finishing speed; Marshall uses his strong lower body and balance to break tackles better.
But Marshall is more likely eventually to get caught.
Johnson is averaging 4.45 yards after the catch this season, Marshall 3.13.
"Brandon is better after the catch," Winfield said. "He runs short routes, screens, and then you see him running down the sideline. He's very elusive for his size, and strong with great quickness."
There is nothing lacking about Johnson's competitiveness, but no wide receiver is more competitive than Marshall.
On contested passes, Marshall plays stronger and with more determination, according to the GM.
Marshall, who played safety at Central Florida for a spell, sometimes plays with the mindset of a defender, coming back to the ball and breaking up potential interceptions as well as anyone. Even though Marshall does not have Johnson's hops, it's difficult for anyone to win a jump ball against him.
Marshall, whose nickname is "Beast," also is a superior blocker. Marshall seems to relish getting a chance to take defenders out of plays.
Johnson has some physical gifts Marshall doesn't possess. That, in part, was why Johnson was the second overall draft pick in 2007 and Marshall was the 119th pick in 2006.
But because of the rare passion and grit with which Marshall plays, he is not far behind Johnson in terms of his impact on his team.
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