The NFL awards will be decided during a two-hour event, beginning at 12pm (AEDT) on Sunday, February 2. Here are my predictions.
The NFL preseason is now officially upon us and in Australia the biggest NFL news story is former NRL player Valentine Holmes attempting to make the New York Jets’ 53-man roster.
Unfortunately for a die-hard NFL fan, the reporting around Holmes doesn’t get the nuance it deserves – with articles usually focusing on a single aspect of his situation rather than the whole picture. Hopefully this article will provide a better insight into Holmes’ NFL journey.
Holmes made the New York Jets’ preseason roster due to the International Pathways Program (IPP) run by the NFL. The Jets had an extra spot on their roster allocated for an international player – meaning he wasn’t competing with American athletes for a roster spot – unlike other NFL Aussies Jordan Mailata (Philadelphia Eagles), Adam Gotsis (Denver Broncos) or Micheal Dickson (Seattle Seahawks).
The benefit for Holmes, if he chooses to stay in the NFL, is that IPP players can’t be cut off the team completely. If they miss the 53-man roster they will be on the team’s practice squad (players who participate with the team during training but don’t play in the actual games) – giving them an invaluable opportunity to learn the nuances of the game.
The big question around Holmes is if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster will he stay on the Jets’ practice squad (he could be elevated to playing squad later in the season) or will he return to the NRL?
For those of us who are rooting for bigger and better Australian representation in the NFL it would be great for Holmes to stick around with the Jets – regardless of how he goes in his initial year.
To get a better understanding of how Valentine Holmes might go in the NFL it is important to try and break down how he could succeed and how he could fail.
1. He’s great at making defenders miss in open space
Part of what made Holmes such a threat in the NRL was his ability to run around, past or even through defenders (he led the NRL in both line brakes in 2018 with 26 and kick return metres with 1494).
Holmes’ skills as a fullback/wing almost directly translate to that of kick/punt returner in the NFL, where he will catch the ball and have to run it against an oncoming wave of defenders.
Having a few stellar returns in the preseason could help cement a place in the special teams unit.
2. Explosive athleticism
Holmes was almost always the best pure athlete on the field when he was in the NRL. His ability to go from a standing start into full flight was one of his greatest strengths.
That ability to explode into top gear is a requirement for both running backs and wide receivers at the top level, especially when Holmes doesn’t yet possess nuanced route running or know how to read offensive line blocks at game speed.
One of the hallmarks of the Holmes’ game in the NRL was his consistency. In three of the four years he played as a starter he was able to score 15 tries or more (2015, 16 tries; 2016, 19 tries; and 2018, 22 tries).
The only outlier was 2017 where he only scored six tries, but this was also the year where he had to switch from wing to fullback on a permanent basis due to Ben Barba’s suspension.
In 2017 and 2018 he also led the NRL in kick return metres. What this indicates is that he is a consistent professional athlete, which is one of the most sought after traits in the NFL.
Coaches and teams value consistency because it ensures a certain amount of stability and reliability.
4. Ability to tackle
Holmes’ ability to tackle could help him cement his spot in the special teams unit as a gunner.
Gunners are responsible for tackling kick/punt returners on kickoff and punt plays. Special teams is the most natural transition point for rugby players.
Nate Ebner – who has a rugby background and represented the USA in Rugby at the 2016 Olympics – has been signed to the New England Patriots since 2012 and has made a career of being an excellent special teams player crunching returners with his brutal tackling.
5. The rise of hybrid offensive players in the NFL
If Holmes proves to be a damaging ball runner in open space he’s in luck, NFL offences are becoming more about the players and less about the position.
Players like Cordarrelle Paterson (Vikings, Raiders, Patriots, Bears), Alivin Kamara, Taysom Hill (Saints), Christian McCaffery and Curtis Samuel (Panthers) are hybrid players who both run, catch and in Hill’s case pass the ball.
Offensive coordinators are always looking for ways to get their most dynamic ball carrying players in to space with play action, trick plays and unique formations. Depending on Holmes’ ability he could find himself as a regular in certain formations/situational plays of offense.
1. The learning curve is too steep
The jump from one sport to another at a professional level is not an easy one, even when the sports have similar aspects.
Benji Marshall struggled in rugby union, Israel Folau was unable to be a consistent AFL player and for Holmes the jump to the NFL is going to be huge.
The intricacies of readjusting a running style from less upright to a lower centre of gravity, learning the patterns of the offensive line, knowing which holes to hit, trying to read the defences and knowing who to block in pass protection, is a lot to learn within a year.
Most NFL players are still learning how to play their position when they enter the league after having played at both high school and college. If Holmes doesn’t properly master the basics coaches won’t trust him and he’ll be a definite cut candidate.
2. Jets’ head coach Adam Gase expects a lot out of his running backs
One of the hallmarks of Gase’s tenure in Miami as their head coach was how much he used running backs as both runners and receivers. Running backs would often be required to be proficient pass catchers, with Gase’s propensity to use the short passing game.
He also liked to run empty formations with the running backs lining up as receivers. If Holmes wants to make the roster, being dependable in both running and receiving is a must, and from all reports emanating from the Jets’ training camp Holmes is struggling to adjust performing at game speed.
3. Lack of experience
Holmes is attempting to play one of the most physical and essential positions in offence. Much is expected of running backs, and due to a higher amount of injuries in the position teams usually require all backs on the roster to be able to play without notice and fit into the offence.
Holmes’ lack of experience in any type of gridiron offence will be of major concern to coaches, as even minor miscues can be the difference between a positive play and a disastrous one.
If for instance Holmes was in the backfield on a pass play and couldn’t recognise who he was meant to block it would likely result in a quarterback sack (where the quarterback gets hit and the team loses yards), and that’s a risk most coaches won’t tolerate.
4. Limited opportunity
The New York Jets running backs are some of the most skilled in the league. Le’veon Bell is arguably the best back in the league (at least in the top five) due to his unique running style and ability to be a top level receiver.
Ty Montgomery is a hybrid receiver/running back who is likely to start the season second on the depth chart, and he is also in contention to be the main punt/kick returner.
With the positions Holmes is attempting to play being occupied by legitimately good and experienced NFL players, unless he is a revelation in the preseason there’s not much chance he’ll see any regular season action.
5. The Jets are under pressure to perform in a tough division
The Jets are looking to end their playoff drought, having last reached the postseason in 2010.
They play in the AFC East which has been dominated by the Patriots since 2001 (Patriots winning the division 16 out the last 18 years). Last year the Jets fired their head coach Todd Bowles due to under performance.
New head coach Adam Gase has been tasked with revamping the offence and turning second year Quarterback Sam Darnold into one of the league’s best, and is under immense pressure to perform straight off the bat.
It’s hard to see how the Jets, who have a legitimate chance to challenge for the division title this year, would put their trust in an unknown quantity like Holmes.
Holmes’ chances of being able to crack the 53 man roster are low if not near impossible. Despite the talented athlete that he is, no professional athlete from either rugby league or rugby union has been able to become a legitimate NFL starter.
His best chance is in special teams, and tomorrow’s preseason game will see Holmes on the field for the first time. Here’s hoping he gives a good account of himself.
Even if he doesn’t make the roster it would be great to see Holmes spend a year on the practice squad and learn the game and to stay in the NFL at least until the end of the 2020 season.
Though the North Queensland Cowboys have reportedly already set aside a million dollar contract for Holmes next year, and given that practice squad members only get around US$129,200 per season, it’d be hard deal to turn down.
Whether he succeeds or not it will be exciting to see how the next month plays out either way.
The Jets take on the Giants at 9am AEST on Friday 9th of August.