It probably hasn’t escaped the attention of many Panthers fans that Thomas Davis is not going to be with the Panthers in 2019 – and while Shaq Thompson is expected to slot into the #2 linebacker role alongside Luke Kuechly with second-year ‘backer Jermaine Carter, Jr. as the #3, along with the pending free agency of David Mayo this could create some opening further down the depth chart this offseason.
It would be unsurprising, therefore, for the Panthers to look to add at least some insurance options during free agency, perhaps even re-signing David Mayo – but there is also a chance that the Panthers look to find some depth options later in the draft, and one such option is North Carolina’s Cole Holcomb. Before we dive into what Holcomb has to offer, I’d invite you to check out the following: my inside linebacker big board, my outside linebacker big board and the accompanying podcast for Linebacker Week where Dan Kreso and I discuss the entire board, Holcomb included.
But for now, let’s get to Holcomb:
The obvious base skill for run defense is tackling – and while a few things usually has to have happened for the play to get to that stage, if a run defender can’t tackle, they are going to have some difficulties being effective. Fortunately, Holcomb shows good technique as a tackler in space, getting low and wrapping well to bring the ball carrier to the ground:
He also shows enough strength not to get knocked back on the tackle:
And when the opportunity presents itself, he does a decent job of looking to create a fumble once the tackle is secured:
But what about the stuff that has to happen to get to this stage? Well, a big part of that is the ability to work off blocks, and while Holcomb isn’t the biggest of linebackers, this is another thing he does quite well. First, he shows the ability to hold his own against much bigger offensive linemen:
And on the following play, he uses this same power to win the collision with the running back – in so doing, he forces the quarterback into the arms of the outside defender:
However, when such collisions aren’t necessary, he does a good job of using his hands to keep blockers away from his frame, allowing him to disengage to make the tackle:
And when tasked with getting outside his blocker, he uses his hands well to avoid contact:
And when the blocker is able to get hold of him, he has the arm strength and coordination to work off the block without sacrificing gap discipline:
While at his size – 6-1 and 233 pounds – he is unlikely to be seen by many as an inside linebacker in a 3-4, for an outside linebacker in a 4-3, he has sufficient power combined with good technique to work off of blocks effectively. Of course, a lot of the run game isn’t about taking on blockers head on, with outside runs looking to stretch a defense laterally. On tape, Holcomb showed the requisite speed to cover the breadth of the field:
Crucially, he doesn’t look to overpursue, knowing that with help outside, he only has to stay close enough to prevent the ball carrier from cutting back inside. He does the same thing here, doing well not to get inside the tackle before pursuing to the ball to allow for the tackle on the cutback:
And when he is tasked with setting the edge, he uses his quickness well to get in good position without overrunning plays:
These same skills are also very useful on inside runs, though sometimes harder to identify – but on these two examples, Holcomb does a good job of not getting caught in the jet fake and sticking to his gap responsibility:
And here, he does a good job of working outside to his gap before using his hands well to keep the blocker away from his frame:
He also showed nice quickness when asked to hit a gap as a blitzer against the run, here forcing the ball carrier back inside:
All of these are useful skills which help to prevent the offense from being able to force mistakes in a defense. This is something that David Mayo really struggled with at times – especially when offenses pulled blockers across his face and asked him to shift laterally with them.
As a bonus, Holcomb also shows the determination not to give up on plays, working well to give help to a receiver on the edge:
And even producing a couple of Luke Kuechly-style chase downs during his time at UNC:
Holcomb doesn’t have the frame to make his money crashing gaps as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 – hence, this is not where I suggest playing him. But as an outside linebacker in the Panthers’ 4-3, he shows a range of traits which are likely to make him a plus run defender at the NFL level.
Just once more for fun…
Up Next: Pass Coverage