For those of you who don't know the story well, you should, because it is a good one. Trindon Holliday has always been small and fast - very, very fast. At 5,5" 169 lbs he is the arguably smallest player in the NFL. If it weren't for luck, he probably would not have played high level college football (or college football at all). His mother kept him out of football until he was in the 7th grade grade fearing he would be hurt because of how small he is/was. His 40 times were so fast in HS that his coaches would add time to make them look more realistic. He was not supposed to go the scholarship tryout at LSU that ultimately landed him his offer, but his high school teammate, Andre Brown, backed out so his coach took him as a last minute replacement. According to his wikipedia page he ran a 4.28s 40 while running in high-top basketball shoes at that tryout. The LSU coaches were so stunned that they assumed they all started they stopwatches late. So they asked him to run it again. This time he ran a 4.27 and he didn't even start from a sprinter's stance. Even with that Les Miles was reluctant to offer him a scholly.
Holliday was a running back at LSU where he was also a track star. His personal best in the 100m dash is 9.98s - which he ran at a meet in 2009. Prior to 1968 that would have been the world record. The current world record is 9.58s by Usain Bolt. The fastest 100m ever run by an American is 9.77s. Holliday publicly stated that he wanted to, and was planning on, breaking the 40yd dash record (currently held by Chris Johnson) at the NFL combine. He did not accomplish that and therefore did not get picked by Al Davis and the Faiders in the first round. He was actually taken in the 6th by the Texans. It is rare for track speed to translate to the football field, but Holliday is one of those rare players who can translate his speed to football. Despite all that speed he only had three return TDs during his three years at LSU - 2 on punts, 1 on a KO:
2007 vs Mississippi KO return touchdown
2008 vs North Texas PR touchdown
2009 vs Arkansas PR touchdown
Holliday had 68 KO returns in college and 42 punt returns.
So why did he last until the 6th round?
Did I mention that he's small? Joking aside, his diminutive size was a big factor but there were three others that caused his draft stock to fall:
1. He was used sparingly as a RB while at LSU (to keep him from taking a pounding) and he is not a very accomplished receiver. He had a total of 101 carries in his college career (604 yards, 6.0 ypc) and 7 receptions. In 3 games, some college backs have more than his career totals.
2. He was viewed as a kick return specialist and there are many good ones on the NFL who went undrafted - Darius Reynaud, Marcus Thigpen and Michael Spurlock to name three. All three of those guys equalled or bettered Holliday's return TD output from the regular season of last year (yes, I know he had two return TDs in the playoff loss).
3. Holliday has always had a high fumble rate (more on this later). Holliday had 5 fumbles on 238 career touches in college. So he fumbled on 2.10% of his touches. If he were mainly a RB, that number would be horrible. But he was NOT mainly a RB, he was mainly a return specialist and in that regard his fumble rate is not horrendous (at least on punt returns). I was unable to determine how many of Holliday's fumbles occurred in what situations in college although I know at least one occurred on a rushing attempt.
While it has never been explicitly stated, the reason that the Texans left him unprotected is that he fumbled on a punt return against Jacksonville (the ball went out of bounds so the Texans kept possession). The Texans front office must have decided that KeShawn Martin was a better option (Martin averaged 12.1 yards per PR and returned a punt for 71 yards last season).
(The touchdown return that *should* have been called a fumble)
Fumbling away the game - the Risk with Holliday
According this blogger over at nflmanniac NFL fumble rates, fumbles occur on 7% of all punt returns and 2.5% of all kickoff returns over the last three NFL seasons. Let me restate that, 1 out of every 14 punt returns results in a fumble and 1 out of every 40 KO returns results in a fumble. Holliday had 71 touches last season and 6 fumbles
48 punt returns for 481 yards and 1 touchdown (lead the league in total PR yardage)
21 KO returns for 552 yards and 1 touchdown.
2 receptions for 17 yards
Additionally in the playoff loss Holliday had
3 punt returns for 90 yards and 1 TD
3 KO returns for 158 yards and 1 TD
and no fumbles
So all told Holliday touched the ball 77 times and fumbles on 6 of them - 7.8%. If all of his fumbles occurred on punt returns he would be worse than average. If any of his fumbles occurred on KO returns, he would be worse than average in terms of ball security. With 51 total punt returns, the average NFL returner would fumble 3.6 times. With 24 KO returns, the average NFL kick returner has 0.6 fumbles. It should also be noted that it is rare for players to dramatically improve their ball security once they get to the NFL.
Under what situations did Holliday fumble in 2012.
PR (with HOU) vs Jax - muffed, went OOB
PR vs SD - recovered by SD, led to a SD FG
PR vs SD - recovered by DEN (Lance Ball)
PR vs Oak - muffed, recovered by DEN (Tony Carter)
KR vs BAL - fumbled OOB
PR vs CLE - muffed, recovered by DEN (Chris Harris)
Historically fumbles are recovered by the opposing team roughly 50% of the time. So the Broncos and the Texans were lucky to have only lost one of the 6 fumbles the Holliday committed last season.
The Reward of Holliday
So Holliday had 5 fumbles on punt returns on 51 chances; on 9.8% of his punt returns he dropped the ball. From the reward perspective, he scored on 2 of 51 chances - 3.9%. So last year he was three times more likely to fumble on a punt return than he was to score. In the 2012 regular season, there were 1133 punt return touches, 85 fumbles and only 17 touchdowns (1.5% of all punt returns end in a TD). So while Holliday was worse than average on fumbles, his chances for the big reward were significantly higher than the NFL average on punt returns. Those numbers are including the playoff game for Holliday.
There were 1395 KOs returned in the 2012 NFL regular season and 37 fumbles on those returns (2.65%) . There were only 14 KOs returned for TDs during the regular season (1.0%). Holliday's fumble rate on KOs was worse than average (4.2%), but his TD percentage was tremendous (8.3%). Holliday's numbers are including the playoff game here as well.
Is the risk worth the reward?
Generally speaking John Fox has been a conservative coach. This was in evidence at the end of regulation against the Ravens in the playoffs when he had PFM take a knee to send the game into overtime rather than try and move the ball into FG range with two timeouts and kicker who could probably hit from 70. Conservative coaches make moves in games to minimize risk and Trindon Holliday returning punts and kickoffs is definitely not minimizing risk. We know from last season that Leonhard was used on punt returns when we were ahead or tied ostensibly because he was the "safer" option. So it is conceivable that the front office might try and trade Holliday since his value right now is as high as it will ever be (Raven fans think, wrongly, that he is the ONLY reason why we were in that playoff game).
Good return man can be found in the UDCFA pool and we may have found one in Quincy McDuffie, who returned 6 KOs for touchdowns during his college career and is presumably better at protecting the ball than Holliday (only 2 fumbles in 234 career college touches). McDuffie has no experience returning punts, but another player who recently joined the Broncos has a great deal of experience returning punts, Wes Welker. He returned 30 punts for the Pats last season (10.0 ypr) and has 249 punt returns in his NFL career (with only 1 touchdown way back in 2004). Would we use our highly-paid aging slot receiver as a punt returner? If nothing else, he would provide more ball security than Holliday. Welker fumbled three times in 2012 (twice on catches and once on a punt return - muffed OOB vs the Fins in week 17).
So which direction do you think that the team will go? Is the risk of Holliday worth the reward?