COMMENTARY | The Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant recently made waves by claiming he was as good as the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson. The ensuing national debate about the best wide receiver in the game continues to overlook the fact that the Chicago Bears' Brandon Marshall might be better than either Bryant or Johnson.
Is Marshall being disrespected in the "Best Wide Receiver in the NFL" conversation?
Best Hands: 1. Marshall 2. Johnson 3. Bryant
Entering the 2013 season, Marshall is tops in the group with an average of 87 catches per season. He also broke the NFL record for most receptions in a single game when he snatched 21 balls against the Indianapolis Colts in 2009. Just one season prior, Marshall hauled in 18 more in a game against the San Diego Chargers -- the NFL's third most catches in a single game.
Bryant has been known to go through periods of butterfingeritis, and Johnson has only been able to convert 55 percent of his targets into receptions -- the lowest percentage of the group.
Most Consistent: 1. Marshall 2. Johnson 3. Bryant
The 2013 season will mark the seventh straight year in which Marshall goes over 1,000 yards receiving. The understudy role he played in Denver during his rookie season remains the only statistically underwhelming season Marshall has ever produced. Marshall's string of success is even more impressive when we consider the two seasons he was catching passes from Chad Henne and Matt Moore in Miami.
Three of Bryant's first four seasons has seen him unable to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, and Johnson has two of his own unspectacular seasons on his resume. Johnson's highs might be higher, but Marshall is where you want a No. 1 receiver to be year in and year out.
Leaping Ability: 1. Johnson 2. Bryant 3. Marshall
This is the one category in which Johnson runs away and hides from the competition. Anyone who saw his jump ball touchdown grab against triple coverage in Week 7 knows all they have to about Johnson's ability to go up and get the ball. Much like Randy Moss before him, Johnson has taken the mantle as the player who is open no matter how many defender he has draped around him. Stafford knows if he gets in trouble, all he has to do is throw it high in Megatron's general direction and there is a good chance he'll still be able to come down with it.
Bryant is the shortest receiver of the group at only 6-2, but he has also shown the ability to out leap the smaller defender in the back of the end zone. At 6-4, Marshall is no stranger to picking the ball out of the sky at its highest point either, but both Marshall and Bryant have become more adept at the back-shoulder throw than the jump ball.
Best Run after Catch: 1. Bryant 2. Johnson 2. Marshall
Bryant is leading the group this season with 206 of his yards coming after the catch. Marshall and Johnson get hurt in this category because of the type of offense their teams run, but the Cowboys are routinely trying to get Bryant the ball in space so he can do his thing. As a former punt returner, Bryant has the elusiveness to make defenders miss while also possessing the size to run right over them if need be. Any time Romo throws the two-yard hitch route, he knows Bryant could take it the distance.
Speed: 1. Johnson 2. Marshall 2. Bryant
Johnson is certainly an athletic freak of nature. He ran a blazing 4.35 sec. 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in 2007. Bryant and Marshall both tied with a mark of 4.52 seconds for their straight line speed. There is no question Johnson is the track star of the group, but as they say, football players are rarely able to run 40 yards straight ahead without pads during a game. Speed and football quickness are two very different things.
Route Running: 1. Marshall 2. Bryant 3. Johnson
Here is where we start to separate the wide receivers from the Olympic-level sprinters. There is a reason Usain Bolt doesn't suit up for the Miami Dolphins. Just ask the average speed of Jerry Rice or Chris Carter how important it is for receivers to be able to beat a cheetah in a straight-ahead sprint.
Johnson uses his size and leaping ability more than this natural gift to create separation. Bryant is a product of a great Dallas offense and the additional weapons he has around him that allows him to still see single coverage. On the other hand, Marshall just seems to have that gift for find the open holes in the zone and using his great body control to gain the advantage over DBs. If there is one last play that rests on my No. 1 receiver being able to get open in any situation, I'll take my chances with Marshall.
Results: By the numbers of my unscientific ranking, Marshall narrowly beats the field. But in all actuality, teams could pick a name out of a hat and be perfectly happy with any of these three receivers. A healthy Julio Jones would have to also be included with this list of No. 1 receivers.
Dez Bryant was not out of line to put his name next to Johnson's, but people who want to debate this topic would be wise to include Marshall into the mix of best receivers in the game today.
Dalton Russell has covered the Chicago Bears in print and online media since 1998. He lives just outside the shadow of the iconic architecture of Soldier Field.
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