ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In front of the entire country, Brandon Marshall showed he belonged on an NFL roster two years after the team that drafted him decided he didn't belong on theirs.
On fourth-and-goal at the Denver half-yard line, Andrew Luck kept the ball and tried plow through the Broncos' defensive front. His attempt proved futile and he was denied at the line as the Broncos swarmed him and pushed him backwards for a loss.
The first Bronco to meet Luck was Marshall. That play, in the third quarter of the Broncos' first game of the season, was the moment when Marshall realized that he belongs in the NFL.
There were plenty of reasons for him to think otherwise.
From October 2012 to September of 2013, Marshall was waived from the Jacksonville Jaguars three times, including twice in one week. He spent some time on the practice squad during that period, but the uncertainty of his role on the team, and his future in the NFL, weighed on him.
"It's a feeling of rejection," Marshall said of being cut. "It's almost them saying, 'Well you're not good enough so we're going to move on from you.'"
A four year-starter at Nevada where he totaled 259 career tackles, he was accustomed to being "the man" – the person who teammates admire and fans respect. He learned quickly after arriving in Jacksonville the ruthlessness of the NFL and how unforgiving this business is.
"Everybody coming from college, you don't get cut," he said. "You have a scholarship, you're on the team and you were the man on the team. So coming from being the man in college and coming to the NFL, you think you're going to be the man and that doesn't turn out. It's a feeling of rejection.
"It hurts but it's a part of the NFL."
While getting cut is a norm in the league, that feeling of rejection and not being good enough doesn't soften the more times you're waived. Marshall knows all too well what it's like to be the guy packing his belongings.
But that dejected player clearing his locker is long gone now. Just two seasons after struggling to make the roster of the 2-14 Jaguars, he is starting at weakside linebacker for the Broncos and leading the team in tackles.
His rise to the starting role came through unfortunate circumstances as starter Danny Trevathan incurred a fracture near the knee of his left leg on Aug. 12 during training camp practice, which sidelined him for the Broncos' first three games of the season. After Trevathan suffered a different fracture in the same knee on the defense's second snap against the Jets, he was placed on injured reserve with designation to return, giving him the option to come back for the Dec. 14 game against the Chargers.
Once Trevathan was carted off the field in East Rutherford, Marshall didn't hesitate. He grabbed a new helmet, equipped with a radio receiver to hear the calls, and was ready to play.
"Our defense, we never flinch," he said. "So I just came in and I'm like, 'Let's go, man.' We live for this."
These Broncos know better than most the difficulty of replacing first teamers, as they went into the Super Bowl with five defensive starters injured and unable to play. While Marshall is new to hearing his named called as he leaves the tunnel at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, he has adopted this role nearly seamlessly.
Throughout training camp Marshall was playing with the first team primarily as a nickel linebacker, but has evolved into an every-down 'backer, stepping up and becoming what his team needs him to be.
It wasn't an easy journey here as he played in just one game in 2012 for the Jaguars and spent the first 16 weeks of the 2013 season on the Broncos' practice squad. But he sought out the advice of friend and former Jaguars teammate Terrance Knighton when he was evaluating his options after he exhausted his stay in Jacksonville.
Knighton didn't lie to Marshall about his chances of making the team: He told him that he would need to work hard, but that the Broncos were a top-notch organization. Marshall was also considering Oakland and while it likely would have been easier for the linebacker to rise through the ranks there, he followed Knighton to the Mile High City.
"He just said come here and work hard and it's a great organization and you'll be fine," Marshall said. "I trusted that."
"I played with the guy in Jacksonville, seen him get drafted, seen him get cut a few times, come back and keep fighting," Knighton said. "And last year he actually called me when he was a free agent and said he had a few choices on practice squad that he could make, and I said 'Come to Denver. Just come in, work hard, do what you gotta do. You're going to be on practice squad but work your way up to the active roster.' He did that late in the season. He had a good offseason, came into OTAs working hard, and he's earned his position. I had supreme confidence in him."
While Marshall's fourth-down stop on Luck was his favorite of the season, the Nevada native has racked up plenty of highlights. He played like a veteran during the Broncos' convincing win over the Chargers in Week 8 and seemed to be involved in every play on defense, continuously denying Branden Oliver running room. Pro Football Focus rated Marshall 3.1 and noted that he finished the game with 10 defensive stops, with the whole team combined for 21.
He earned himself the game ball following that performance.
"I have been impressed with Brandon Marshall," Head Coach John Fox said the Monday after the game. "If you go way back, everybody knows his history and where he started the race in the evaluation process. He just keeps getting better and that's something that we talk about a lot.
"He's responded to that and I think he's got opportunity. I know people laugh about 'next man up' but he wouldn't have this opportunity if it hadn't been for an injury and he's taken full advantage of it."
Check out photos of the Broncos from Friday's practice.
Marshall's experience in Jacksonville makes him more appreciative of not only being a starter, but actually being able to contribute.
"I think I look at it differently than some guys that maybe haven't been waived and haven't been cut," Marshall said. "I have a different outlook on it for the simple fact that I know that at any day it can be taken away. I got cut twice in one week before and both times I had no idea. I just know, okay, well I have to do this if I want to stay in the league and if I want to stay productive."
He certainly has been productive with 60 tackles through eight games and he is just one of four linebackers in the NFL with at least five pass break ups. He and the Ravens' C.J. Mosley are the only linebackers this season with at least 50 tackles and five passes defended.
In addition to Marshall's ability to make plays, he's also been taken on a leadership role as he is the player calling the signals in the huddle. A near-NFL reject just a couple years ago is now leading well-established league veterans like DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib.
That fact alone speaks volumes of his progress and willingness to adapt to any role.
"You know when you get that sort of opportunity or second opportunities to play the game, you sit back and think about what's important, you think about opportunity you have," Ware said. "I feel like he sees that moment and he is where he is right now from how hard he's worked.
"Sometimes when you're at the bottom you figure out how to crawl to the top. I think it started with him being, first of all, a listener at the bottom and now a more vocal leader at the top."
Marshall has been everywhere during the Broncos' first eight games. His contributions have been numerous and his play has been instrumental in allowing the Broncos to move up the defensive ranks, as they are now first in the NFL in rushing yards per game and seventh in total yards allowed.
Since his time in Jacksonville, he believes he has improved in all aspects of his game. In college he struggled with missed tackles, but based on the tape, that appears to be a lapse of the past. He also noted that his pass coverage and his speed have improved and while he wasn't on the active roster for most of last season, that time on the practice squad helped him develop into the playmaker he is today.
"When you go against an offense like this, which is one of the most potent in NFL history, you go up against an offense with Wes Welker and all these guys, it allows you to get better," Marshall said. "It pushes you to a different limit and if you're working diligently like you should be on practice squad, then you'll improve."
Facing the likes of Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Peyton Manning and Knowshon Moreno on the practice squad last season forced him to improve. He said when he was on the Jaguars' practice squad for six weeks, he didn't see himself develop. Practicing against the Broncos' potent offense, he had the choice to rise or fall behind. He chose the former.
Marshall and T.J. Ward were the only two Broncos to play every defensive snap during the Broncos' first three games of the season. Marshall averages over 68 defensive snaps per game, good for 93.8 percent of the D's time on the field.
Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said part of the mindset that allows Marshall to do so well is that he doesn't dwell on his past, but instead, he's looking to improve.
"I think he's more interested in being what he can be as a player, not really worried about what was, but thinking more about what he can make of this opportunity and with career," Del Rio said Thursday. "I'm really proud of him. He's going to get better. That's what I keep telling him. I say, 'Look, you've done a nice job. You need to continue to get better and you can continue. There's room for you to grow, so continue to work hard and do the things you've been doing.'"
Del Rio has been very complimentary of Marshall since he undertook the starting role, regarding both his play and his leadership. Preceding the Broncos' Thursday night game against the Chargers, he spoke about the expectations that the defensive coaches have for linebackers, which go beyond making key tackles. The linebackers need to run their personnel and be excellent communicators. Marshall is thriving in those additional facets of his expanded role.
Just as the defensive coaching staff did last season in preparing the second-stringers for starting roles, Del Rio made sure Marshall was prepared to be a contributor.
"We work hard as a staff to make sure that the guys that are in backup roles are preparing to be a guy that could be called on," Del Rio said. "And then when they are called on, we make sure that we lean on some of the things that we have taught them. We build their confidence, and we do that through some of the basic fundamentals and how we do it: understanding of the scheme, and then their confidence will grow as they have success and as they earn it.
"I think that's what's happened with Brandon. He's done a great job coming in and working hard. The staff, Richard Smith, all the coaches have done a good job working hard with him and he's the guy that's gotten it done for us on the field."
Marshall's focus doesn't stray. Even watching from the sidelines at practice, his intensity and willingness to learn is obvious.
He hardly reflects on how he and his status in the NFL have evolved. Just as he remains focused in practice, he's focused on the task ahead. On the rare occasion that he does allow himself to take the time to think about his past and his progress, it humbles him.
"I think the experience of being cut made me who I am today," he said. "Everybody goes through different things for different reasons.
"We each have different tests and challenges. I think my first two years kind of molded me into the mindset I have today and the player I am today."