That's the question several front office executives grappled with during the offseason while assessing two of the NFL's top receivers on the open market (Jackson as an unrestricted free agent and Marshall via trade). Both are big, physical receivers with outstanding hands and ball skills, but they are distinctively different in their styles of play. This stark contrast creates a compelling debate in the scouting community, which makes them worthy of consideration in this series.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Jackson to give young quarterback Josh Freeman a legitimate No. 1 target, while the Chicago Bears reunited Marshall and QB Jay Cutler (once a dynamic duo with the Denver Broncos). With enormous expectations surrounding both players in their new cities, let's stack them up against each other in five categories to see which one is the superior player.
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Jackson was a standout two-sport star (football and basketball) at Northern Colorado and those skills are certainly reflected in his spectacular game. He excels at blowing past defenders on vertical routes, but also displays the ability to outleap opponents for contested balls in traffic. Marshall is just as impressive as an athlete. Although he certainly lacks the explosiveness to match Jackson in a footrace, Marshall's playing speed is problematic for defenders who area already overwhelmed by his imposing size and strength.
Overall, I would give Jackson the nod over Marshall due to his combination of size, strength and quickness. It is hard to find a smooth and explosive playmaker in a 6-foot-5, 230-pound package, but all of the ingredients are certainly there when I watch Jackson.
Big-bodied receivers typically struggle running routes due to the difficulty of dropping their weight on cuts and re-generating speed. However, Jackson and Marshall have become solid route runners over the course of their respective careers. Jackson excels at running the vertical portion of the route tree. From the "Bang-8" (skinny post) to the post-corner, he has developed into an indefensible threat in isolated situations with his speed and athleticism. In an offensive system that emphasizes the vertical passing game, he is a nightmare to defend.
Let's take a look at a 58-yard reception by Jackson against the Baltimore Ravens to see how well he executes a double move in space. The Chargers align Jackson to the top of the screen. He is facing one-on-one coverage against Ravens CB Cary Williams:
Jackson is going to run a "Stutter-Go" to sneak past Williams on a deep route:
When Jackson fakes a curl at 10 yards, Williams reacts by breaking up on the route:
Jackson accelerates out of the move and runs past Williams for a 58-yard reception:
Marshall excels on various crossing routes over the middle of the field. He is at his best when utilizing a speed-cut technique that allows him to roll in and out of his breaks, instead of stopping and starting at the top of his route. As a result, he is able to run away from defenders and uses his big frame to shield them from making a play on the ball. Marshall also displays a crafty knack for executing double moves to defeat defenders on deep balls.
In this area, I would give the nod to Jackson because of his ability to run the entire route tree with superb precision. He simply runs crisper routes and his game would fit any offensive system.
Catching the ball is the most basic (and most vital) factor in a receiver's job description. Both players certainly stand out in this area. Jackson has developed into one of the best pass catchers in football. He excels at tracking the ball on deep routes and his ability to make last-minute adjustments on errant tosses expands the quarterback's strike zone. Although he occasionally muffs a ball due to a lapse in concentration, Jackson's focus and consistency stands out on tape.
Marshall is a spectacular pass catcher with outstanding ball skills and hands. He snatches the ball out of the air with his big mitts and utilizes his size advantage to routinely come down with difficult balls in traffic. While Marshall also suffers from occasional lapses in concentration, he routinely produces highlight-reel catches that make the miscues tolerable.
Marshall is my pick in this category. He just makes so many spectacular catches. The video to your right showcases Marshall's remarkable ball skills in action at the 2012 Pro Bowl.
In today's game, coaches covet receivers with the ability to accumulate big yards after the catch. Jackson is a very productive runner in the open field. He isn't a physical or aggressive runner, but routinely runs through arm tackles and picks up positive yards after the catch. Although he doesn't strike fear into the hearts of defenders when he gets the ball, he is certainly capable of making plays in space.
Marshall, on the other hand, is an extremely dangerous runner at all times. He attacks defenders with a potent stiff arm and shows the capacity to turn short passes into big gains. When Marshall gets the ball on the move, he simply makes things happen in the open field, and that's why he gets the nod as the superior runner.
Offensive coordinators covet pass catchers with the potential to produce big plays down the field. Jackson is undoubtedly one of the best in the business at delivering explosive plays (20-plus yards). He has compiled an impressive career average of 17.5 yards per catch by routinely getting behind defenders on vertical routes. In addition, he has become a prolific touchdown maker, with 37 scores in 91 career games.
The clip to your right shows Jackson running past the defense on a double move for a 55-yard score. Pay attention to the subtle stutter fake at the top of the route on the replay.
Marshall has also been productive as a big-play artist. He has 72 receptions of 20-plus yards in six seasons (compared to Jackson's 76 in seven years), tallying 34 touchdowns during that span. Those numbers are certainly on par with some of the top playmakers in the league.
In this category, I give the edge to Jackson due to his ability to make plays down the field. The deep ball impacts the defense more than any other play in football, and Jackson has demonstrated his ability to consistently make explosive plays. Although Marshall certainly provides a spark to any offense, my love of the bomb makes Jackson the pick here.
Jackson and Marshall were two of the marquee acquisitions of the offseason and their arrivals in Tampa Bay and Chicago, respectively, will certainly add another dimension to those offenses. Although I expect Marshall to have a bigger impact in Chicago -- due to his ability to thrive as a No. 1 receiver with Cutler -- I believe Jackson is the better overall player at this point of his career. He is a superior athlete, route runner and big-play threat, which makes him a more difficult player to defend in my opinion.