Update II: The Marshall trade costs the Bears a fan.
The 2012 season will mark an unfortunate anniversary for the Chicago Bears: their tenth without a thousand-yard receiver, the longest active streak in the NFL. At least that is if Brandon Marshall doesn't break 1,000 yards now that the Bears have acquired him from the Miami Dolphins; he's had five straight years over that mark, one of only three recievers to do that. He's also been to the Pro Bowl three times, something the Bears have only had twice in that position in the past forty years: Marty Booker and Dick Gordon.
On the face of it, it looks to be a good trade. The Dolphins gave up two second-round picks for Marshall, and gave him to the Bears for two third-round picks after only two years of service (and it's unlikely the Dolphins are terribly concerned about the door hitting him on the way out). Marshall played three of his six years with Jay Cutler, and his two years after their shared rookie year were his best as a professional, in part because Cutler loves to throw to Marshall—in 2007 and 2008, he was the target of more passes than any other receiver in football.
This doesn't mean Marshall caught more passes than any other receiver those two years. He was fifth in the NFL in receptions in 2007, and third in 2008. And one of the knocks on Marshall has been his hands, and the case of the dropsies that plagued him in Miami. Marshall's drops and somewhat low catch rate—the percentage of balls thrown to him that are caught, including but not limited to drops—have made him relatively unpopular among statheads. He didn't make Andy Benoit's top-10 receivers in 2011 after being used more as a possession receiver in the Dolphins' less-than-electric offense; K.C. Joyner is critical of Marshall's low yards-per-attempt; and he regularly receives a low rating from Football Outsiders, whose writers attribute his success to being the best offensive option on mediocre teams:
Marshall comes out ninth among wide receivers in the Scouts Inc. rankings. He puts up big standard numbers with lots of yards and touchdowns.
But that's because he's always been the focal point of his team's offense, both in Denver and last year in Miami.
He ranked just 34th in DYAR last year and has never ranked higher than 24th. Sure, some of that has to do with all the attention he gets from opposing defenses, but Marshall's advanced stats just don't match those of the wide receivers with higher Scouts Inc. grades, such as Hakeem Nicks (10th in Scouts Inc. rankings, sixth in 2010 DYAR) and Mike Wallace (eighth in Scouts Inc. rankings, first in 2010 DYAR).
If you put any value in these advanced statistics, Marshall had his best season yet last year by Defensive Yards Above Replacement, finishing 16th in Football Outsiders' rankings. And compared to the Bears' current lineup, it's not even close—Johnny Knox finished 45th. FO also recommends comparing "effective yards" to actual yards as a measure of how a receiver's performance is reflected by his numbers. Marshall finished with more effective yards than actual yards (a good sign); Knox finished below. Then again, Roy Williams finished with more effective yards than actual yards, so YMMV.
Marshall makes an interesting study for football nerds. The advanced statistics don't like him, at least compared to many of his peers. He's got a checkered off-the-field history and had a spotty relationship with the Dolphins' quarterbacks, though I think his willingness to go public with and discuss his borderline-personality-disorder diagnosis is a cause for hope on that front. Nonetheless, he's been doggedly consistent—as reliably good as any receiver in the NFL over the past few years by conventional metrics.
That's probably the takeaway. Marshall is a tier below Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, and Andre Johnson, and where he is in the next tier or two depends on who you ask. But he's also accustomed to being overwhelmingly the number-one passing option on his team, which he'll immediately be with the Bears; he's not only tall, another Bears need, he's huge; he's got a couple good years behind him with Jay Cutler; and he comes cheap. The deal leaves the Bears more cap space than they would have had if they'd pursued the best free agent receiver, Vincent Jackson, who was expected to go for more than Marshall is set to earn.
And right on the heels of Marshall: Jason Campbell signed as a desperately needed backup QB.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune