Upside is a buzz word this time of year. Optimism is in the air, intoxicating all but the crankiest old farts in the football world. The draft wasn’t even a month ago and every single team added exciting new talent. Yes, even the New York Giants.
This time of year is also when the hype trains start to collect all of their steam. Remember how Josey Jewell was supposed to be the steal of the 2018 draft? Iowa fans do. Everyone’s guilty of it to some extent, heck I wrote this about Royce Freeman 374 days ago. It’s part of fandom to see the best possible outcome for your favorite team’s players, but it’s also good to keep some degree of perspective. Every UDFA is probably not going to turn into Phillip Lindsay or Chris Harris, and no Jake Butt was not an All Pro when healthy last year.
Keep all of this in mind as you start to see the buzz building around Justin Hollins. Every report I’ve seen from the Broncos has continued to stir my optimism about the fifth-rounder. He just so happened to be my very favorite pick of Denver’s 2019 draft, and it isn’t surprising that the coaches have loved his game every bit as much as I do.
All reports out of Dove Valley so far have pointed to him learning to play both the inside and outside linebacker positions in Vic Fangio’s defense.
“It’s a credit to the type of kid he is,” Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said after Saturday’s practice. “You usually don’t do that with a young player. He had a really good background, similar background with the defense he played in college. [Outside Linebackers Coach] Brandon Staley came to us with the idea. He thought he could get it done. He’s done a great job getting him ready. It’s been some productive days to see him and just get an idea how he can possibly help our defense at a couple positions.”
So what can he bring to the table?
Dynamic edge rusher
Hollins finished his Oregon career with 14 sacks, 36 tackles for a loss, and 7 forced fumbles. Last year he was the only player in the FBS with 5+ sacks, 5+ forced fumbles, and an interception. Those numbers don’t even account for the number of times he pressured the passer but didn’t take him down. Let there be no doubt, when he was asked to rush the quarterback he was a constant nuisance.
One of the things that initially jumps off the tape when you watch Hollins is how quick he is. When he rushes he’s an immediate threat to opposing pass blocker’s vertical depth around the outside and forcing the quarterback to step up. When Oregon pushed the pocket to take advantage of this, great things happened. Hollins is also fast enough to make plays chasing the run down from the backside.
While he has a lot of room to grow as far as building up a pass rush repertoire, he did flash some encouraging savvy in the Stanford game. In the play above you’ll notice he rushed the inside gap of the Cardinal tackle. Later in the game, he utilized a subtle hesitation to sell a the inside that had to be respected, which gave him the step he needed to run the arc to Stanford’s K.J. Costello for the strip sack fumble.
Even more exciting is that in Denver he’ll be learning from one of the very best linebacker coaches in the league in Vic Fangio and working behind one of the best speed rushers in recent NFL history. While Joe Flacco’s comments about mentorship have gotten all of the national media attention this week, I actually am interested to see what Von Miller can teach the rookie. I’d like to see him develop a long arm move
Comfortable in space
It doesn’t take long to realize Hollins wasn’t just rushing off the edge every single down for Oregon. In fact, the Duck’s coaching staff moved Hollins off the ball his junior season. One reason they did this is because he moves comfortably in space. Defending the pass isn’t as flashy as sacks or forcing fumbles, but more than 60 percent of the time, Fangio’s off ball linebackers dropped into coverage in 2018.
Between Hollins experience, length and athleticism, I fully expect him to be an asset in this area as he gains more NFL coaching. There’s a reason The Draft Wire’s Doug Farrar compared him to a young Julian Peterson.
Of all the defensive linemen and linebackers in this draft class—and it’s the deepest defensive line class in recent memory—Hollins may be the most freakish athlete. At 6’5” and 245 pounds, Hollins has the athleticism to do everything from rushing the passer from the edge to covering receivers in the slot. Athletically, he brings former 49ers and Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson to mind. Hollins doesn’t always bring that athoeticism to the field in ways you’d want—he especially needs more and better moves as a pass-rusher—but if you’re looking for one guy to blow up the drills at his position, Hollins would be a good one to bet on.
Where does he need to improve?
There is little doubt that Hollins still needs to grow to reach his potential in the Broncos defense. As I previously mentioned, his pass rush moves are still a bit rudimentary; he could stand to get better with his hands, specifically. It would help him to add more muscle to his long frame as he does have some issues with power. In this way he’s similar to Von was when he came out of Texas A&M. He’s a raw speed rusher who has the potential to grow into a far more complete edge rusher.
If Hollins is to carve out a significant role as an off ball backer in the Fangio scheme he’ll need to continue to prove he’s capable against play action and the more advanced routes that are run in the National Football League. There has been some concern over his ability to bend due to his 6’5” frame, but this doesn’t sound like a major concern to Coach Donatell.
“He has the bend and he’s versatile and he picks things up so fast that we can take on that task with him,” Donatell said.
Julian Peterson is a very lofty comparison for the fifth-round pick who will all but certainly play behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb during his Broncos career. After all, the five-time Pro Bowler finished his 11-year career with 802 tackles, 51.5 sacks, 21 forced fumbles, 8 interceptions, and 64 passes defensed.
With that said, Hollins showed so many flashes on tape that I jumped with excitement when Elway made the call. Hearing all the buzz about him now is very encouraging, and he’s in the perfect situation to reach his considerable ceiling.
If he can continue to learn both linebacker roles, it wouldn’t surprise me if he turns into one of the bigger Day 3 surprises from the 2019 Draft.