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On and off the field, Brandon Marshall poised for his biggest year

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --When inside linebacker Brandon Marshall made two plays on the football during Thursday's practice, it wasn't a surprise.

Few players have been stronger and more effective during OTAs than Marshall. He's played fast. He's looked better than ever at reading plays as they develop. He's also fueled by a frustrating 2016 season in which he played through pain and was not himself.

"I'm in a good place in my life. So I'm just excited," Marshall said. "I feel like my instincts are back. I'm reading the offense pretty well. I think I'm doing well."

That begged the question -- if Marshall's instincts are "back," then where did they go last season?

"I know it's kind of hard to say that they went away, but last year it just felt like my feel for the game was a little different," he said.

"I've always had a good feel for the game, for what might happen, but last year it was weird. I felt like my instincts were a little off. I'm not sure what that was all about. But I'm clear-minded, and I think I'm good."

The most likely culprits of his struggles last year were nagging injuries. They sapped Marshall's speed and explosiveness. The mind knew where to go, but sometimes the body failed to respond.

Marshall played just 11 games last year, one season after he didn't miss a game despite playing with pain because of the screws that were left in his foot during an offseason surgery.

"My foot -- I know I did well the Super Bowl year, but last year was a rough go for my foot, as well," he said. "And then I had the hamstring injuries, and everything that was going on there.

"I feel completely healthy right now. I'm moving well. I think I might be the strongest I've ever been. I'm excited looking forward to the season."

He's also excited about the possibilities off the field.

For most observers, the defining image of Marshall's 2016 season isn't a an open-field tackle or the sight of the 250-pounder blasting through a gap to stuff a run behind the line of scrimmage. It's of him kneeling before the national anthem of games during the first half of the season to call attention to social-justice issues.

Marshall ended his protest in November. He lost endorsements, but he believed he made a difference, particularly after having the chance to meet with Denver Police Chief Robert White.

"I feel like everything that came out of it -- there were some negative things, but at the end of the day, everything happens for a reason," Marshall said. "I chose to do that for a reason. I felt comfortable with it as a man.

"I got a lot of support, a lot of respect, because people recognize that it was not easy to do that, and not everybody would do it considering the backlash that I got from it.

"It was a little bit of a distraction, but that came with the territory when I decided to do it. Now I put that behind me."

But Marshall made it clear -- any distraction from his protest did not carry over to his play during games.

"When I say, 'distraction,' it's like when you're in the locker room and you want to talk football, and maybe at home, you just want to study your playbook, but then you have to do things and every reporter's calling you and texting you about what's going on. That's the type of distraction it was," Marshall explained. "But it wasn't like I was thinking about it at practice and on the field. Not at all."

But that leaves the question -- what's next for Marshall?

In the wake of his protest and his long-standing support of families affected by domestic violence through his work with the Rose Andom Center, one thing became clear: He wants to make a difference beyond football.

That effort starts with a foundation, for which he is laying the groundwork now. He plans to focus on reaching youth in his hometown of Las Vegas.

"It's a leadership/mentorship program," Marshall said. "I want to be able to build leaders and help the youth in the community that might be lost, that don't have that leader or somebody to look up to. That's the next step for me."

But Marshall also wants to continue his involvement with Denver-area schools. In May, he spoke to students at Cheltenham Elementary School in Denver, while also reading "How to Get a Girlfriend," an award-winning children's book written and illustrated by kindergarteners from a school in Croatia. Two weeks later, he returned to Cheltenham to speak at the school's fifth-grade graduation ceremony.

"Talking to kids and assisting them with transitions in life -- all that is stuff I love to do," Marshall said. "I will continue to do all that stuff, because I feel like that's part of my calling, as well as football.

"The bigger part of my calling is giving back."

But Marshall knows that football and his play on the field is the foundation for for all that he wants to do away from it. That's why he changed up his workout routine in the last few months and recommitted himself to ensuring that this season is the finest of his career.

"I'm definitely looking at career bests for everything. Everything from tackles, interceptions, [passes defensed] -- I'm looking at career bests," he said.

"I'm excited. I've been putting a lot of work in. I think when you put a lot of work in, you gain confidence in yourself because you know that you put the work in. You know that you're grinding. I'm definitely looking at career bests for everything."

On and off the field, Marshall believes his best is yet to come.

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