An athletic pass-rusher from the FCS level might wind up as a massive draft steal when we look back at this draft class five years from now. He led the division in sacks with 18 and was named the division's defensive player of the year by STATS FCS. It's not Noah Spence from Eastern Kentucky; it's Tyrone Holmes from Montana.
Unlike Spence, Holmes never played FBS football. Spence, who is considered to be a first- or second-round pick in the NFL draft, started his career at Ohio State, where he was eventually banned from Big Ten play due to two failed drug tests.
In 2012, Spence was the fifth overall recruit in the country, per 247Sports' composite rankings. That same year, Holmes was the 1,464th overall recruit, only earning one FBS scholarship, an offer from the University of Idaho.
When evaluating small-school prospects, you need to first figure out why they ended up at the universities that they did. Production for FCS players alone doesn't translate to NFL success. By looking at why they were passed over by FBS programs, you may stumble upon a fatal flaw or off-field concerns.
Holmes has neither, but it's easy to realize how he slipped through the cracks. He played high school football in the small southern Oregon town of Eagle Point, which has a population of less than 10,000. Eagle Point High School also plays in the second division of the state, 5A, which is unfortunate for a recruit in Oregon, which puts out few Division I athletes per capita at the top, let alone beyond the surface.
The fact is, outside of California, the West Coast is fairly underrepresented in college football, and with teams such as the University of Oregon electing to cast a national net rather than target players in the area, FCS teams have an opportunity to steal gems in the Northwest.
Last year, for example, only four of the Ducks' 18 recruits came from Oregon. Two—both 4-star recruits, per 247Sports' composite rankings—came from the in-state powerhouse Central Catholic High School in Portland, a 6A school, and another, Justin Herbert, is from Sheldon High School, another 6A staple that has won three state championships since 2007.
Sheldon is in Eugene, where the university's main campus is located. The lone 5A recruit whom Oregon signed was from Summit High School in Bend, which, according to the U.S. Census, is the largest city more than an hour out of Portland. Summit won the state title in 2015 with former first overall pick Drew Bledsoe as the team's offensive coordinator.
Oregon State, the only other FBS program in the state, signed just one Oregon recruit, despite coming off a 2-10 season. Where did he play? Oregon City High School, a 6A program, which according to Niche is the sixth-largest high school in the state. There are haves and have-nots in Pacific Northwest high school football.
The in-state programs aren't even scratching beyond the surface to pull in local players. It's within reason to see why there would be a significant margin of error in recruiting the area.
Holmes fell into Montana's lap, where he started for three seasons. As mentioned before, though, production isn't a tell-tale sign of next-level success. What does indicate his promise as a professional are his measurables.
The Minnesota Vikings' defensive line coach, Andre Brandt, compared Holmes to Everson Griffen, who he coaches, at Holmes' pro day, per Gil Brandt of NFL.com. Griffen has posted back-to-back double-digit-sack seasons as a former fourth-round pick, which is incredible when you realize that the bust rate for non-first-round pass-rushers is in the ballpark of quarterbacks.
When looking at their numbers side by side, the results are interesting. These numbers were pulled from NFL Draft Scout, a site with well-documented combine numbers dating back to 2005.
|Name||Height||Weight||10-yard dash||40-yard dash||Vertical||Broad||Shuttle||Three Cone|
Though he's lighter, Holmes is a better athlete than Griffen using raw numbers. A fairly referenced combine metric used in the media draft community is Waldo, which was created by a poster of the same name on a football message board in 2011. It essentially adjusts pass-rushers' athleticism based on their density.
Using the metric's "speed" and "agility" thresholds, set to standards that Holmes hit, here are the only players who scored better than the Montana product between the 2005 and 2014 draft classes in the first through fourth rounds (where Griffen was taken):
- First round: J.J. Watt, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Mario Williams, Cameron Jordan, Chris Long, Melvin Ingram, Bruce Irvin, Jerry Hughes, Brandon Graham, Adam Carriker, Lawrence Jackson and Jamaal Anderson
- Second round: Connor Barwin, Jason Worilds, Turk McBride and Dan Bazuin
- Third round: Justin Houston, Cliff Avril and Chris Gocong
- Fourth round: Brian Robison, Sam Acho, Bryan Kehl, Zak DeOssie, Baraka Atkins and Jeremy Thompson
In a study including 147 players over a decade, only 26 prospects were up to par with Holmes, and 12 of those 26 came as first-round picks, not including the likes of Justin Houston, who was considered a first-round talent but fell due to a failed drug test at the combine. Outside of the elite of the elite prospects, you really have to dig to find players who are on Holmes' level.
When using the "twitch" metric from Waldo to filter more players, the number of comparable athletes drops even further:
- First round: J.J. Watt, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Melvin Ingram, Bruce Irvin, Jerry Hughes, Brandon Graham, Adam Carriker and Jamaal Anderson
- Second round: Connor Barwin and Turk McBride
- Third round: Chris Gocong
- Fourth round: None
Only 12 advance as comparable prospects, and only three are non-first-round picks. Of the 12, you can really only make the case that maybe three, depending on how you view Brandon Graham, are busts. Even in that group, Adam Carriker suffered injuries early on in his NFL career that led to his exit from the league.
Athleticism matters at pass-rushing positions, and the caliber of athleticism that Holmes put on paper at his pro day just isn't typical of selections outside of top-20 picks. When studying Holmes' senior season, those traits show on the field.
If you want to display Carson Wentz's mobility, the quarterback who may come off the board as early as second overall to the Cleveland Browns, the game you want to parade is when he went against Montana, when Holmes trashed North Dakota State's right tackle for hours.
If you took pre-snap freeze frames of Montana's front and told someone that one of those defensive linemen was a man among boys at the FCS level, it would be an elementary task to pick him out, as Holmes looks like he's ready to pounce out of his stance. In that way he's similar to Vic Beasley, who was drafted eighth overall in last year's draft class.
He's explosive enough to win on the edge, using sustained force and a rip move to push through out-of-position offensive tackles, whose feet can't keep up, to sack quarterbacks. Not only does he have a rip move, but when bookends do overcorrect and sell themselves outside, he has a counter move: an inside swim. Even when you help individual linemen out by throwing extra protection from running backs his way, he does enough to get the quarterback out of rhythm.
That's enough for him to be a factor in the NFL. When a player develops a signature move and consistently executes it, he's a good college player. When he has a counter off a pass protector's answer to that move, he's a good NFL player. Griffen, for example, is best known for his spin move. The same can be said of Robert Mathis, who this winter was a monster in the playoffs as a 34-year-old.
Still the dude. Robert Mathis and Everson Griffen have the best spin moves in the NFL. pic.twitter.com/djfqYJpSxz— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) March 8, 2016
Holmes has the production, athleticism and film that you want to see from an FCS player. The only box he didn't check as a small-school prospect was dominating at an all-star game. He wasn't invited to the Senior Bowl, the nation's topflight all-star game, but he did attend the East-West Shrine Game, which is viewed as the second-best event for graduating prospects.
There, he didn't make much noise in practice. You aren't going to find an echo chamber of praise for him like you can for Spence's Senior Bowl.
For someone of his athleticism and production to not flash against FBS talent raises a red flag, especially when you consider the offensive tackles he was facing, but there have been recent examples of the same circumstances occurring and the pass-rushers being more than fine in the NFL.
Ezekiel Ansah was a freak athlete coming out of BYU, but there were questions about the one-year wonder who transitioned late in life to the sport. At the Senior Bowl practices, he was a non-factor, but he had 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in the game at the end of the week. Ansah was drafted fifth overall by the Detroit Lions and led the NFC in sacks last season.
Holmes is doing work in the Shrine Game, too. pic.twitter.com/U2pZa75bCQ— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) April 6, 2016
Like Ansah, Holmes seemingly flashed more during the game than in practice. Even against the run, when setting the edge, he was efficient. Against NFL competition, he may be a pass-rusher, but at the Shrine Game and against FCS opponents, he was an all-around player.
No one is going to tell you that Holmes is the next Von Miller or DeMarcus Ware, but the only attribute on his scouting report that should keep him from being a top-100 pick is the name of his school. Even that, with his high school's location, is explainable.
Still, it's hard to find praise dedicated to his talent. NFL Draft Scout ranks him as the 17th outside linebacker in the draft with a sixth-round grade. Walter Football's Charlie Campbell has him as the 21st 3-4 outside linebacker with a fifth- to seventh-round grade. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller didn't have him in his top 300 prospects after the combine. On Play the Draft, Holmes isn't on the list of 366 prospects.
As far as developmental options go, Holmes would be first on my list as a mid-round selection. It's interesting that someone from the Vikings' staff spoke up about his pro day. Usually, a franchise has maybe one, possibly two freak pass-rushers, in terms of combine athleticism, on its roster. Minnesota has four.
The starters, Robison and Griffen, are two of the four best pass-rushers drafted in the fourth round in the last decade, along with Ray Edwards and Elvis Dumervil. Minnesota's rookie pass-rusher in 2015, Danielle Hunter, was overlooked because he only had 4.5 sacks in his three-year career at LSU. After slipping to the third round, he had six sacks in his first year in the league, second-best for rookies last year. Even Scott Crichton, the team's 2014 third-round pick who finished 2015 on the injured reserve list, posted great density-adjusted numbers.
At a position with a high bust rate, the Vikings have found a cheat code: density-adjusted athleticism. Sure, Holmes wasn't a combine invite, but neither was Osi Umenyiora in 2003 coming out of little-know Troy University. Umenyiora was drafted by the New York Giants with the 46th overall pick after he ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, and he was an All-Pro player by his third season in the league.
As good as Umenyiora's time was, Holmes' recent number still surpassed it. Hidden in Missoula, Montana, a hidden gem developed for years. It's time for the NFL to unearth him, but if an organization doesn't run up a card with his name on it quickly enough, another franchise ahead of the curve, such as the Vikings, is going to steal the developmental stud before anyone expects him to come off the board.