Elijah Holyfield has had better days. And frankly, so have I.
Though there was maybe a bit more on the line for Holyfield.
On a day in which many running backs missed the mark -- while a few really stood out -- Holyfield struggled more than anyone else. He ran an embarrassing 4.78u in the first leg of the 40-yard dash -- which we excused citing bad form and a stumbling start -- only for him to follow it up with a 4.81u on Round 2.
This is a guy who ran a 11.39 100m dash in high school! He has actual track experience and he couldn't get off the dang blocks!
Things stayed bad for Holyfield. He jumped less than 30" in the vertical jump and posted only a modest 9'6 in the broad jump. He eschewed agility drills all together, which was an interesting decision -- it may serve as a strong narrative point in an excuse concocted by Holyfield and his agent later this week: he trained too hard, tweaked a hammy, and will be healthy for his Pro Day.
Which may very well be true! But as it stands now, we Holyfield fans sit in a tricky spot. Great player on tape, terrible number in Indy. What to do, what to do?
Whenever a player tests poorly, the first and most important thing to do is return to the film with a critical lens. You like the player, you know that -- but wipe it as far to the side as you can, and view his film through the lens of his testing. Knowing that this payer is a bad athlete on the stopwatch and meter stick, what impression do we get from his film?
Does a weak 40 show up when he's trying to house the long run? Do his poor jump numbers illustrate a lack of explosiveness in his cuts, or poor burst through the hole?
When I first watched Holyfield, I fell in love with his field vision, sense of space, and footwork. By staying always connected to the ground and seeing through the first level, Holyfield was rarely caught out of position or hitting a hole that didn't exist -- he knew when to bounce, he knew when to burrow inside, and he knew when to be patient and let things develop.
Holyfield has a nasty demeanor to his running style and looks to run through contact at every avenue offered him, as you can see on the two plays above -- but that doesn't mean he's lacking for elusiveness. Holyfield can break tackles but also elude them, especially at the first level when he's creating for himself. Penetration and good trench defense did little to deter Holyfield -- he was able to handle quick color by working to sunlight...
...and win against backside defenders in one-on-one space situations.
There's a reason I saved this run for last -- it hearkens back to that first idea I talked about, but matters for our transition into the discussion of his Combine.
Holyfield creates 10 yards here where good running backs would have gotten six and bad ones would have gotten two -- how? It goes back to what I said about staying tethered to the ground; about smart footwork to change direction on a time with a great sense of timing.
Holyfield's feet are so sweet: that little skip step, where he doubles up on his right foot to get tight into the cornerback and circle right around him for extra yardage.
This requires athletic ability, but it's less about legit explosiveness and it's more about body control and timing. There's such a great sense of angles and pace here -- first to draw in the filling safety and get him dedicated to coming upfield, and then to stop the corner's feet and slink right by him.
It's important to remember that running backs can create space in two different ways -- they can create space with athletic ability, and they can create space with that instinct, that sense of angles and timing. The elite players can do both, and they are the ones who get drafted highly -- we won't have any of those in this class.
Holyfield does not create space with his athletic ability -- he creates it with clean footwork, great vision and instincts, and his running style: close to the ground, ready to redirect.
But of course, there's a floor level of athletic ability he needs there -- what we would call requisite or baseline athleticism. And is Holyfield a requisite or baseline athlete?
Probably -- I guess we'll see. We didn't get his three-cone and short-shuttle, but I would have expected those to be his best tests coming into the day -- he maintains his speed through angles and has the flexibility through his hips to get low and explode out. With even average numbers there, we would have been able to say "Okay, he lacks good straight-line athleticism, but his ability through angles/cuts will allow him to continue playing his style at the next level."
And what do we do with his bad straight-line numbers? Well, we look at a player on a runway, and see what strikes us. Against Middle Tennessee State -- poor competition -- we can see that Holyfield lack of long speed in the third level prevents him from scoring a TD that many RB prospects in this class would have housed.
And that's not his running style at all -- he's clearly aware of the issue and doesn't rely on his long speed to help him win. I lauded his ability to keep his stride short earlier -- it helps him in tight spaces and through traffic, but when he's presented with the open field, Holyfield is too willing to keep his stride length short and continue working the angles: he wants to cut back against flow, seek out contact, and be always ready to change direction.
A couple Missouri plays, to that effect:
This is where our true problem lies. If we take Holyfield's film and Combine numbers alike, we can say with near certainty that he will not create long scoring runs at the next level -- at least, not with any degree of regularity or consistency. If you're giving Elijah Holyfield a touch out of the backfield, you don't think it has much of a chance to go the distance.
So how much does it matter that he can turn six yard plays into ten yards plays -- big losses into decent gains? The modern NFL wants to throw the football; it is increasingly eschewing the philosophy that you should run to set up a third down and manageable. Holyfield can take 20+ carries and churn out a great YPC, but can he make defenses pay for light boxes by beating out safeties? If not, then he may not offer enough value to warrant 20+ touches in an NFL offense, even if his film on those 20+ touches would be great.
While many value-based discussions are centered around running backs these days, this paradigm applies to all players. For the role that he would fill in my offense, what are the most valuable plays that he can churn out, and how does his skill set translate into those plays. Some teams may love Holyfield's ability to grind out positive yardage on every play, but those teams already drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round last season -- so Holyfield's landing spot may be tough to find, in a dense running back class around Rounds 3 and 4.
At the end of the day, tape conquers all, and Holyfield can clearly provide value to an NFL offense as a consistent back who can win in short-yardage situations and keep your offense on schedule. His combine illustrate the physical traits that not only dictate his playing style, but dictate his ceiling as well -- it's up to NFL teams to figure out where they want to draft that.