As news broke Thursday that second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman suffered a career-ending neck injury in Saturday’s preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, it’s worth a few column inches to bid adieu to a promising career by looking at some of the reasons the Cowboys used a sixth-round pick in 2013 to make the South Carolina product one of head coach Jason Garrett’s Right Kind of Guys.
During Garrett’s Thursday press conference where he made the news public, Garrett said he saw Holloman as the type of player who could have had a 10-year NFL career. “He just has everything you want,” Garrett said, before listing some of the qualities of an RKG:
“He took advantage of his opportunity here last year whenever we gave it to him.”
Seizing opportunity is one of the key components of an RKG. Holloman missed seven games in the middle of the 2013 season with a spinal contusion he suffered during a Week 6 practice. While he was out, the football gods smote the Cowboys linebacking corps and Holloman returned to man the middle of the field in the Cowboys’ final three games.
In the season finale at home, with the division on the line, playing a white-hot Philadelphia Eagles offense that had scored 118 points in its last three contests, the much-maligned Dallas defense surrendered just 24 points. Holloman, making only his second NFL start, having lost the bulk of his rookie season to a scary injury, and playing an unfamiliar position, led the team with 11 tackles and two sacks. After the game, Garrett was asked to assess the rookie’s performance:
“Seemed like he handled the situation well. He’s a young player. Really hasn’t played that much linebacker. He was a safety when we drafted him and played down around the line of scrimmage. The strides that he made over the course of the season to be able to handle that responsibility was really impressive. We’ll have to go back and watch the tape to see how he played play-by-play, but he certainly seemed to show up in the ballgame.”
“He has physical ability.”
Former NFL scout Bryan Broaddus at dallascowboys.com broke down Holloman’s 2013 Week 17 performance with a piece titled “Scout’s Eye: Final Game Shows Bright Future For Holloman.” In the piece Broaddus shows how Holloman struggled in the first half before getting a feel for how to use his athleticism in defending against the potent Philadelphia offense:
“Another great example of the speed and quickness of Holloman came later in the game when the Cowboys were trying to get the ball back for their offense in the final two minutes of the game. The Eagles try some read option deception by bringing DeSean Jackson in motion, then into the backfield. At the snap, Foles fakes the ball to Jackson going to his left, while at the same time, bringing McCoy underneath working him to the flat. Holloman sees it all the way and begins to track McCoy. On the play, George Selvie gets such a push on Brent Celek that McCoy trips on Celek’s feet and goes flying through the air and to the ground. Down the field, Morris Claiborne grabs the jersey of Riley Cooper slowing him up. Holloman sees McCoy on the ground, now starts after Foles, who has nowhere to go with the ball. Foles cannot outrun the closing Holloman, who forces him to the edge and on the ground bringing up a 4th down and getting the defense off the field.”
Safety speed and agility in a linebacker body – using that physical ability to make a huge play in the closing moments of the biggest game of the year. Which brings us to Garrett’s next point:
“He’s tough. He’s got instincts and feel for the game.”
When a player’s neck is hurt enough to require nine weeks to heal, it’s hurt enough to shut him down for the season. Unless he’s a spectacularly tough-minded individual. Holloman endured the grueling mental grind through that scary injury and frustrating rehab, and came back to play in 92 percent of the team’s defensive snaps over the last three games.
Marcus Mosher at Cover 32 was always a big Holloman booster, and covered the instinct angle well when Sean Lee went down with a season-ending ACL injury during non-contact OTAs in June. In breaking down a few plays, Mosher notes Holloman’s instinctive feel for a play’s flow, writing Holloman “makes incredible plays that result in unspectacular tackles.” In reading the offense’s intended misdirection and not getting fooled, Holloman is exactly where the offense doesn’t expect him to be and he reliably drops the ball carrier.
The kid seemed to have that undefinable, uncoachable knack for being around the football. In his first live NFL action during the Hall of Fame game that opened the 2013 preseason, Holloman caught the eye of the Cowboys faithful by nabbing this beautiful pick-six. He caught the eye of veteran linebacker Justin Durant a week later with another interception, this time near the goal line against the Arizona Cardinals. “He’s around the ball all the time,” Durant said. “He’s making a lot of plays. I commend everything he’s doing and his work ethic.” Playmakers are rare, and Holloman seemed to have it.
Opportunistic, athletically gifted, tough, instinctive – an RKG if ever there was one. But in closing discussion on the matter Thursday, Garrett concluded:
“This becomes an easy decision for him and for his family when you’re dealing with that kind of injury.”
We hardly knew ye, DeVonte Holloman. All the best in adjusting to your new reality. Cowboys Nation will always wonder what might have been.