On September 11, 2006, Seattle traded the 24th pick in the 2007 draft for Deion Branch. By accepted rules of equivalency, Seattle's first round pick was worth a late second round pick because Seattle would have Branch most of the 2006 season and New England would not receive its compensation until 2007. Branch had turned 26 two months earlier and was New England's #1 receiver. To that point in his career, he had 213 receptions, for 2,744 yards, and 14 touchdowns.
Seattle is now entertaining trading a first round pick for Brandon Marshall. Marshall turns 26 in about two weeks. He has 327 receptions, for 4,019 yards and 25 touchdowns. He dwarfs Branch in raw stats, and yet Branch beats Marshall in advanced stats. Through four seasons, passes targeting Marshall are worth 110.3 EPA and 425 DYAR. Through his first four seasons, passes targeting Branch were worth 147.2 EPA and 556 DYAR. Now, notice I wrote "passes targeting", we still do not have a solid way of separating individual EPA and DYAR from surrounding talent, but the same can be said for yards. Advanced stats might be more sensitive, but all stats are sensitive to total team performance.
By true talent level, Marshall is probably the better receiver, but advanced stats do help us recognize the gap may not be as wide as perceived. Branch has injury concerns but no concerns about his character. Marshall has some minor injury concerns, a partially torn PCL in 2006, groin and quadriceps injuries in 2007, but major concerns about his character. Marshall, relatively, is a little older, but not significantly. Marshall is the better tools player, but Branch was the better skills player, and has better hands and runs more consistent routes than Marshall.
Tim Ruskell was raked over the coals for trading Seattle's 2007 first round pick for Branch. Much of the criticism stems from an overvaluation of that pick, especially since it was a future pick and therefore generally devalued, and a misunderstanding of the circumstances in which Ruskell made the move. Ruskell overestimated Seattle's chances for future contention, believed he was adding a finished player -a sure thing- he could not have attained through the draft or free agency, to a team that had just played in the Super Bowl and would contend for years to come. That wasn't the case, of course. Branch was not a sure thing. His injuries worsened, but moreover and for whatever reason, he never developed chemistry with Matt Hasselbeck and, even healthy, was never able to impact Seattle's offense like he did New England's.
Ruskell's mistake was less about trading a first round pick and more about trading a first round pick for an expensive free agent. Of the wide receivers available at that pick, Sidney Rice and Steve Smith have developed, but not until 2009, and though a handful of other players that fit Seattle's needs developed value, a handful have been worth less than Branch, even busted Branch. In fact, using Brian Burke's analysis of projected draft value, Branch has exceeded the worth of an average receiver taken 24th overall.
Ruskell's mistake was trading a first round pick for an expensive free agent. Seattle signed Branch to a six-year, $39 million dollar contract with $13 million guaranteed. That contract has not limited Seattle very much, it has been active in free agency and generally been able to control its cap, but it might have cost it somewhat: Signing Colin Cole Chris Canty; Trading Julian Peterson and drafting Aaron Curry. Whatever the actual ramifications, the contract has grown onerous, will likely lead to Branch being cut if he can't be traded, and has been a PR nightmare. If it didn't cost Seattle much in free agency, it contributed to costing Tim Ruskell his job.
So, I ask, how much more valuable is Brandon Marshall than Deion Branch? Marshall may still command the 14th pick, and that's a more valuable pick in a better draft class. Unlike Branch, he is not joining a team that finished its season in the Super Bowl, but a team that has had two consecutive losing seasons and that is on its third head coach in three years. The 14th pick is not a future pick, and Seattle will not get a season of Marshall before paying for Marshall. Marshall has less injury risk, but considerably greater character risk. Marshall is probably the better player, but a highlight reel does not do his game justice. Chris Chambers has an excellent highlight reel. Bobby Engram does not. There's more to being an effective receiver than being "Beastly".
DYAR and EPA probably will not come up in contract negotiations. If Marshall wants to be paid like a top three wide receiver, and his refusal of a $9.5 million dollar contract extension might indicate just that, he could cost much more than Branch. Larry Fitzgerald has $30 million guaranteed. Randy Moss has $14.1 million guaranteed over three seasons. Greg Jennings has $16.25 million guaranteed over four seasons. Marshall would likely command something north of $20 million guaranteed.
It's exciting to add a great talent. It can feel like signing an established player is investing in a sure thing, but there is no sure thing, and a veteran faces pitfalls of his own: growing older, reestablishing chemistry, maintaining drive. If Seattle selects a quarterback, be it early or a late developmental pick, that player will take at least four seasons to surpass 80% of his potential and five to six seasons to enter his prime. Marshall is an attractive bridge, but would be exiting his prime as Seattle's future quarterback is entering his own. So even if Marshall is attained at the loss of only the 40th pick, Seattle might be attaining an older receiver in exchange for a Damian Williams, Brandon LaFell or Taylor Price. And unlike those players, cheap players that Seattle may be patient with and that would not restrict Seattle's options in free agency, Marshall would cost a mint and need to contribute right away.
Is Marshall worth Seattle's second round pick? Probably, if only because eminent talent rather than obvious fit. Is he worth a first round pick? Not at his price and not for the 2010 Seahawks. Any scenario in which Seattle trades a draft pick or picks for Marshall has greater risk and greater downside than any scenario in which Seattle keeps its picks and invests in its future. Seahawks fans know that, because we've been here before. We remember, but have we learned?