The Tar Heel Steal
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
In recent years, Washington has shown a commitment to the defensive side of the ball and walked away with multiple Day 3 steals, such as Chase Roullier, Tim Settle and star defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis. This year was no different, with the selection of North Carolina ILB Cole Holcomb. The Redskins selected the Tar Heel linebacker with the 173rd overall pick in the 5th round.
Many fans were surprised with the selection of the virtual unknown. Although many scouts and draft analysts feel that Holcomb is a project and was selected within his projected range, the film tells a different story. The 6'1" 231 lb inside linebacker registered an impressive 105 TKL, 8 TFL, 1 sack and 4 FF in 2018. A linebacker who can cover and force turnovers is vital in today's NFL, with scoring at a premium.
One game in particular stood out in 2018 for the UNC ILB. The matchup took place November 17th versus Western Carolina. On a 2nd and 10 play in the 3rd quarter, on UNC's 24 yard line, W. Carolina receiver Connell Young caught the ball in stride with nothing but real-estate in front of him, only to have a trailing Holcomb punch out the ball as the receiver was inches from the end zone. The play resulted in a touchback and stalled the Catamount’s comeback attempt. This was a prime example of what Holcomb does well and can be expected to do on the next level.
Transitioning to the Pro Game
It's all well in good that Holcomb ran a 4.48 sec forty at the NFL combine, but how does that transition to the pro game? The truth is, speed doesn't always equate to a successful NFL career. The ability to read and react, while effectively utilizing sideline to sideline speed, is what modern-day NFL linebackers such as Luke Kuechly do well. Holcomb is a former walk-on who demonstrates the football IQ and work ethic to be such a player.
NFL analyst Lance Zierlein had the following to say about Holcomb during the pre-draft evaluation process:
"Speedy run-and-chase linebacker with the eyes and instincts to diagnose and respond quickly, but lacking critical take-on skills at the point of attack. He has sideline-to-sideline range, but he needs to play less reactively and with a more urgent play demeanor in attacking downhill."
Although that evaluation brought up some valid points, it also emphasized a player that relies more on reaction time as opposed to instincts. Zierlein also mentioned in a previous evaluation that Holcomb's speed and ability to spy scrambling quarterbacks is a staple of his game. This has been a huge issue for Washington, especially with Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott often torching the Redskins’ pass rush. That's four games a year in which Holcomb could prove to be a valuable asset. Dime linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons has also drawn praise from coaches for his coverage ability, but he's limited as a tackler and his instincts as a linebacker are still in question.
Coaches such as Rob Ryan will certainly impact Holcomb's development and potential ceiling, but the same can be said of the teammates around him. As previously mentioned, the Redskins commitment to building a young, but talented defense should bring the best out of Holcomb.
Dedicated film study can lead to better tendencies and heighten the ability to read and react on the pro level. Word out of Redskins Park is, the Alabama nucleus has created a culture in which accountability should create better competition, as well as speed up the development of young talents such as Holcomb.
Second year linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton seems like the logical starter at the “Mike” and presumptive signal caller at one of the inside linebacker spots. With the release of Mason Foster, perhaps the odds just got better for Holcomb. Newcomer and veteran Jon Bostic might have the inside track to start alongside SDH as the “Will” ILB though. In saying that, the North Carolina rookie should get an opportunity to compete from Day 1 of training camp.
Holcomb will earn his stripes on special teams, as he did during his time at Chapel Hill. The ability to excel on special teams and adjust to the speed of the pro-game, will be key for Holcomb's development and long-term success.
Holcomb is a player that defied the odds as a walk on, to be a leader on and off the field for the Tar Heels. The bottom line is, none of the current Skins inside linebackers have separated from the pack or have shown the ability to be elite. The door should be wide open for Holcomb to contribute valuable snaps early on. The question is, will the rookie seize the opportunity.