Coming out of Harding Academy in Tennessee in 2009, Marlon Brown was one of the more heralded recruits in the country. He was ranked as the No. 3 wide receiver and 24th overall prospect in the ESPN150 rankings before he eventually committed to Georgia.
There was a ton of buzz in Athens about Brown, who was supposed to be the heir apparent to WR A.J. Green. However, Brown failed to live up to the hype as he was unable to get on track because to a snake-bitten career. He dealt with nagging injuries as a junior which included a sprained ankle, a groin injury and a separated shoulder. Then as a senior in 2012, he missed the opener against Buffalo with a hamstring injury before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee against Ole Miss in early November, ending his collegiate career.
Brown required surgery to repair the injury and was unable to work out for teams in the pre-draft process. He did receive an invite to the NFL combine, but garnered very little attention and was interviewed by just a handful of teams -- Baltimore being one of them. Ultimately though, with Brown being not ready to practice until the beginning of training camp, teams passed on him and he went undrafted in April.
For the fans and media last year's draft concluded when the Indianapolis Colts selected South Carolina TE Justice Cunningham with the 254th, and final, pick. However, for teams this is when a mad dash starts in signing free agents they have ranked on a short list. Coaches and front office personnel take to the phones and begin the recruitment process, which can appear similar to a scene from the movie "Boiler Room."
Brown received the most interest from Houston and Baltimore. In fact, he initially decided to fly to Houston to sign with the Texans, but after finding out they wanted him on a try-out basis, Brown elected to sign with Baltimore, who made him a better and more promising offer.
While rehabbing his knee injury, Brown didn't have the luxury of going through offseason OTAs and minicamps, which is a vital component for the transition of a rookie to the NFL level. He was essentially thrown into the fire at the beginning of training camp, but was able to impress with a combination of size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) and athleticism.
After turning in a solid performance in the preseason opener against Tampa Bay, Brown was forced to sit out the next week against Atlanta while dealing with the same ailing knee. However, Brown returned in the Ravens' third game which is the biggest dress rehearsal for teams in the preseason. He flashed his upside with 59 receiving yards and a touchdown reception on four catches while all but wrapping up a roster spot.
At the start of the regular season, the Ravens had serious questions on their offensive perimeter. They were without two of their biggest contributors in last year's Super Bowl run after trading WR Anquan Boldin to San Francisco while also losing TE Dennis Pitta who was out indefinitely with a separated hip he suffered in the preseason. Making matters worse, WR Jacoby Jones, who was expected to step in as the No. 2 receiver behind Torrey Smith, went down with a sprained knee in blowout loss at Denver in the regular-season opener. This forced the undrafted rookie to handle more of a role more quickly than anyone had expected.
Brown took the opportunity and ran with it. He has been a huge contributor to the Ravens offense this season and has developed a strong rapport with franchise QB Joe Flacco. Currently, Brown ranks third on the team in receptions (44), second in receiving yards (494) and his six touchdown receptions not only leads the team but is second among all rookie receivers behind only San Diego WR Keenan Allen who has eight.
On tape, he is a smooth route-runner for his size and shows above-average strength catching the ball with contested throws in traffic. In addition, he has enough speed to stretch the field vertically along with the athletic ability to win one-on-one downfield matchups, which is a nice complement to Flacco, who possesses one of the strongest arms in the league.
Brown also has been able to come up with big plays at critical moments in games. None was bigger than in the waning moments of a Week 14 win against Minnesota when he toe-tapped in the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Brown's emergence is one of key reasons the Ravens are still in the hunt for the playoffs despite losing so many key contributors from their Super Bowl roster last year.
Not bad for a player who was signed for $5,000 in May.