The Vikings' wide receiver corps is generally considered one of the weaker positions on the team. It has yet to produce a 100-yard receiver and will have only more opportunity to get that done.
What the Vikings do have at receiver is youth, including rookie Sidney Rice, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder that the team drafted in the second round in April.
The Broncos have the Vikings trumped with a talented young receiver of their own. Denver's Brandon Marshall is tall, fast and extremely productive in only his second year in the league after being a fourth-round pick for the Broncos in 2006.
"He's similar to a Muhsin Muhammad. He's similar to a Javon Walker, who they have over there – big, physical guys that can do everything, that can move, have enough quickness and that run-after-the-catch ability," said Vikings safety Darren Sharper. "He's a tough receiver. If you see his numbers, he's a definite physical presence."
Marshall's head coach, Mike Shanahan doesn't shy away from the praise of his leading receiver either.
"He is 6-5, 230 pounds. He can run under a 4.5 40. He has got excellent hands. He is a great blocker – an excellent blocker – very soft hands," Shanahan said. "When you have those types of ingredients, (you) usually don't see receivers that have all those things. He will get better as time goes on, but he is learning to mature as a wide receiver and I think he has got a big upside."
For some of the Vikings' young receivers, "upside" might be an appropriate descriptor, but Marshall has put his potential into production this season already. His 92 catches so far this year tie him for the third-most by a second-year play in NFL history. Even Randy Moss doesn't figure into the top seven in that category.
Isaac Bruce had 119 receptions for 1,781 yards as a second-year player in 1995 and Larry Fitzgerald had 103 catches for 1,409 yards in 2005, leaving Marshall 11 receptions short of second place with only one game to get it done.
"Big, explosive, fast, good hand-eye. He can stop and start – he is not just a long-stride guy," Vikings coach Brad Childress said in describing Marshall. "He knows how to wiggle himself open. He is a very good competitor in jump-ball situations and so they are trying to find ways to get him the football, not just on fly routes or go routes. He has some pretty good catch-and-run ability and he is a handful with the size he is to be able to bring down."
Marshall could be in line for another big game, as the Vikings have the league's last-ranked pass defense. He needs 10 catches against the Vikings to move into second all-time on the Broncos list of single-season receptions. While a 10-reception game hasn't happened this year for any of Minnesota's receivers, Marshall had back-to-back games this month in which he caught 10 and 11 passes against the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, respectively.
"He burst onto the scene and he's become their go-to guy," Sharper said. "I think the fact that Javon has been down for most of the season has allowed him to grow and get those reps, but they've got a talented guy."
Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Marshall's strength is in running intermediate routes and turning them into longer gains with his yards after the catch.
"I think anybody could say that this kid is having a heck of a year," Shanahan said. "He is very talented and the sky is the limit for him."
COMPARISONS TO RICE
The natural assumption might be to think that with Marshall's tall frame he would be comparable to the Vikings' Sidney Rice. Childress said that isn't necessarily the case.
"I would say a little bit different. I think that probably he is a bigger kid than Sidney is physically," Childress said.
For his part, Rice said he doesn't compare himself with other receivers.
"I just try to be myself and do what I do," Rice said, later adding that "92 receptions – that's real good. He's a good receiver, a tremendous receiver, a hard worker. You can tell he likes the action."
Rice has had a six-reception game and an 82-yard effort as his top performances this season. He currently has 31 receptions for 396 yards, but he isn't willing to say that his second season will automatically be easier.
"I have no idea. I've just got to work hard in the offseason and prepare myself. I know what to expect now in the NFL, just being ready for anything. You've got to eat right and take care of your body," he said.
This week, Rice is trying to work his way back from an ankle injury suffered against the Chicago Bears on Dec. 17.
"I believe I'll be ready for the game. I've been getting a lot of treatment on it and everything and have started running back on it," said Rice, who spent about two hours on Christmas day getting treatment on it and was going through Thursday's practice with a brace on his ankle.
Rice said the adrenaline of game day made it "pretty close" for him to play last week and he participated on a limited basis in Wednesday's practice, but he said he hasn't hit any rookie wall. In fact, he said, "in college, when the season ended, I was kind of upset that we didn't have no more games to play until the next year, but this right here, it's a long season."