By Doc Bear
(247 SPORTS) – The Denver Broncos have a history of developing undrafted free agents into valued starters. Rod Smith, Bo Bower and Chris Harris, Jr. are just a few.
Denver has always been a good home to those who found the NFL Draft less than satisfying, but were willing to put in the extra effort and humility required to forge a pro career from an undrafted start. Shaquil Barrett has become a major success story of his own.
In a private discussion, Bob Morris added a few more memories: Greg Kragen, Dwayne Carswell and Steve Watson, and for you truly old-school Broncos fans, Lionel Taylor and Gene Mingo.
In January of 2017, Jeff Holland came off the field at the end of the Peach Bowl having notched a sack in the fourth quarter to end his college career. He was immediately asked whether or not he would declare for the April NFL draft as a junior and replied, in bemusement, “I don’t know.”
Those were heady days for Holland. After being named the top recruit in the state following a stellar career at Trinity Christian High School, Holland found that two men who had been his best contacts in recruiting, newly minted Defensive Coordinator Will Musgrave and Head Coach Gus Malzahn, were now united at Auburn. It made his choice a simple one, and he declared for Auburn.
Holland worked there in the shadow of Carl Lawson for two seasons, who moved on to become an all-rookie edge-rusher for the Cincinnati Bengals. Jeff then came into his own, exploding into his new starting role in the summer of 2017.
By the end of the Peach Bowl, he had produced 45 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 10 sacks and 22 QB hurries. His 33.5-inch arms and 10.5-inch hands had pried another four fumbles from opposing players, and he’d come down with one of them himself.
He was being discussed on many mock drafts in the first three rounds, and few valued him at less than round four. He chose to make the leap, attended Combine and make his mark in the draft. He signed his papers, joining the 2018 draft, just four days later.
But Holland’s physique betrayed him at Combine. He cheerfully admitted that he wasn’t much for what he described as “these drills”. “I’m a football player,” he insisted, and he had both the skills and stats to prove it.
But at 6-foot-2 and 249 pounds, Holland was carrying too much loose weight. He wasn’t fast enough to start at OLB (a 4.79 40-yard dash), wasn’t athletic enough to drop into coverage, or quick enough to shut down the run at the corner.
He wasn’t big enough for a 4-3 DE slot, much less a 3-4 DE role, nor fast and athletic enough for the OLB role. It really only left one job open to him — that of edge rusher.
You might think that edge rusher is a job that requires both speed and athleticism, and you’d be right, but the specific requirements are completely different from those of the jobs listed above. Holland isn’t fast in the 20 or 40, but he has a very quick first step.
Beating your offensive tackle off the mark can get you halfway to the quarterback. Long arms, big hands and a limited history in martial arts — which earned him the nickname ‘Sensei Mud’, with Mud being a long-time appellation — are helpful attributes for the edge role.
A high motor, willing work, multiple attack techniques when rushing the QB and a violent tackling style that separates men from the ball all go toward making him a valuable option for the Broncos to teach, train and test.
Holland has techniques for carving inside or flying around the arc when hunting quarterbacks. His rip and his two-handed swipe are impressive, for his level of experience.
He has the lower body to run through and put OT’s on their heels, with arms long enough to keep them off his own body. He doesn’t have the lateral quickness to shuffle along the line of scrimmage, but he has the short-area speed and technique to attack along the arc. And, he now has help to go to when trying to improve his techniques and options.
Among the top-35 NFL players in sacks last year, 19 of them (54.3 percent) were chosen in the opening round. And only three — Miami’s Cameron Wake, Carolina’s Mario Addison and Seattle’s Michael Bennett — were not drafted. Jeff is determined to make that four in 2018.
In the mini-camp days this year, Broncos DC Joe Woods commented that Holland’s approach and skill was “…blowing people away.” Woods noted that it would be Jeff’s play when the pads went on — training camp and preseason games — that would confirm where Holland’s place would be.
I’d go a step beyond. He needs to create good weight, stripping fat and replacing it with muscle. His core isn’t powerful yet. In spite of that, he’s able to knock tackles off balance with his hips and lower body. He’s been driving the No. 2 and No. 3 OT’s to despair already. A year of intense training could make him a potent weapon in Woods’ arsenal.
The Broncos have one of the best training staffs in football. Jeff needs nutritional advice, better strength-building and the development of film and practice comprehension. He needs to learn all the things, great and lesser, that go into building the career of a high-skill edge rusher.
He has Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett as well as the coaching staff to learn from. He will come to understand hand-fighting from D-Line Coach Bill Kollar, with LBs Coach Reggie Herring and Defensive Assistant Chris Beake also there as go-tos.
The Broncos have proven that they understand what it takes to turn a UDFA into a functioning part of their defensive machine. Jeff is perfectly positioned to take advantage of that system.
Now comes the tough part — competing with pads on, banging and winning. Holland wouldn’t have it any other way.