There is always going to be an uncertainty projecting linebackers’ coverage abilities to the NFL due to the limited number of different coverages most college defenses run – so what is often more realistic to look for indicators of coverage suitability rather than expecting a finished coverage product. Let’s start with man coverage.
North Carolina didn’t run the most complex defensive scheme, so generally when Holcomb was in man coverage, he was lined up well inside his receiver with his responsibility being to force him outside and look to force a tight window throw to the outside of the field. In general, this is something he did well:
This was really stressed against Duke – where the frequent use of five-wide formations made it hard for the players like Holcomb who were asked to start inside the box. In general, however, he shows good foot quickness and lateral agility and while not all of these lead to incompletions, he is able to make every throw less than simple – he even showed a decent ability to contest at the catch point at times:
Of course, not everything was sunshine and raindrops, and Holcomb did struggle when asked to trail out of the slot:
This shouldn’t be hugely surprising, as transitioning to trail in the slot from an inside leverage is one of the more difficult skills most linebackers will be asked to portray in coverage, but it didn’t help that when Holcomb did lose, he tended to lose badly – understanding how to use your help defenders to your advantage is something where Holcomb could probably do with improvement.
As you might have noticed, all of the routes shown so far have been underneath ones, and another important thing Holcomb might be asked to do in man coverage in the NFL is to cover vertical routes from the slot – this is usually something that teams look to avoid as it puts a lot of pressure on the player in question, but it is something you see from time to time. Generally, this is something that Holcomb did well, using enough contact to prevent separation without risking being called for a hold:
But there were times where his feet were too stationary prior to initiating contact, making it hard for him to stay with the receiver through the transition to running vertical, such as on the following play:
In general, Holcomb does some nice things in man coverage, but is unlikely to ever be a shutdown cover man. It is hard to tell how he would fare if asked to split out wide with a running back or tight end as this was not something he was asked to do in college, but for him, this is likely to be one of the weakest parts of his game and something that he works to mitigate the impact of rather than being a core part of what he does.
By contrast, he does a number of things which suggest that he has the potential to be a solid-to-good defender in zone. He shows good movement skills in space:
And shows at least a basic ability to read a quarterback and time his break back to the ball:
One of the nicest plays he made in coverage were two plays off play-action against Duke; on both, he was asked to move laterally as part of the run fake, before recognizing the play fake, reading the quarterback’s eyes about where the receiver was going to be and doing enough to get in the way of the pass to disrupt the receiver at the catch point:
It would, of course, be nice to see him take the next step and look to step in front of the throw for a turnover, but he does a lot of nice things here in terms of play recognition, movement in space and general awareness. This awareness is a key part of what most defenders are asked to do in space, and while this is something that is best probed through interviews, Holcomb does do some encouraging things in terms of recognizing plays:
Even if he sometimes doesn’t do the best job of being gap aware while doing so:
In summation, Holcomb might not look to be an elite coverage player at the NFL level, but he does enough nice things for NFL teams to be encouraged about his potential to be a solid coverage player, especially in zone.
The final way in which teams look to use their linebackers in the pass game is as blitzers, and while Holcomb did do some nice things on occasion:
There were far more examples of him really not adding anything at all:
Holcomb isn’t the complete NFL linebacker, and if the Panthers were in need of a Week 1 starter, he probably wouldn’t be an ideal fit, but for a team looking to add late-round quality depth with development potential – similar to what they did in Jermaine Carter and fellow UNC alum Andre Smith last year – then Cole Holcomb makes a lot of sense.