During the offseason, we’ve been looking in depth at each of the Jets’ draft picks and undrafted free agent signings. However, there’s another intriguing first-year addition we haven’t looked at yet.
Valentine Holmes is a 23-year old former international rugby league star from Australia. He is 6’1” and 200 pounds and has been listed as a running back, although he has no football experience.
He was allocated to the Jets for the 2019 season under the International Player Pathway Program. This guarantees him at least a practice squad spot throughout the season, and he doesn’t count towards the 90-man roster limit during the offseason. The Jets are also being allocated an extra practice squad spot to accommodate his guaranteed place.
Holmes didn’t attend college, signing his first professional rugby league contract as a 17-year old. Over the next few years, he established himself as one of the brightest young stars in Australian rugby, starring for the Cronulla Sharks in the NRL.
The Sharks won their first ever premiership title in 2016 with Holmes scoring 19 tries to lead the team for the second year in a row. (A try is the rugby equivalent of a touchdown). Holmes also was selected to represent Australia for the first time, scoring once on his debut.
In 2017, Holmes became an even bigger star thanks to his performance at the Rugby League World Cup. Holmes only had one try (the equivalent of a touchdown) entering the quarterfinal stage, but then exploded for a record-breaking five tries in a blowout win over Samoa and then broke his record with six more against Fiji in the semi final.
While Holmes didn’t score in the final, he played a valuable role in Australia’s 6-0 win over England and ended the tournament as the leading try scorer with a record 12.
Holmes continued to play well over the next few seasons, winning the Sharks’ player of the season award in 2018. However, he opted to be released from his contract to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.
After an impressive pro day, Holmes was allocated to the Jets under the International Player Pathway Program. Even if he makes the roster, he’ll initially see a drop in pay because he was earning a million Australian dollars a year (about $700K).
Now let’s take a look at what Holmes brings to the table, divided into categories.
Holmes is scatback-sized and shows speed, strength, acceleration and a low center of gravity on film.
At his pro day, he ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash. His strength and explosiveness numbers were about average with 20 bench press reps, a 33.5-inch vertical and a 119” broad jump.
He was reportedly told that his three-cone drill was in the 6.7-6.8 range which would have been incredible. Only six running backs have run a three-cone drill of less than 6.75 at the combine since 1999, including Christian McCaffrey.
Holmes has been listed as a running back, but has also trained to play wide receiver and to return kicks and punts.
In rugby league, Holmes primarily played on the wing, which means he was out wide and the team would look to get him the ball in space to run around the outside. However, he also played some fullback, which means he would have been playing a deeper role on defense and more involved offensively in the middle of the field.
Holmes’ natural running ability is his most transferable skill. On the rugby field, he was a constant threat to beat the first man, battle for positive yardage and break long gains.
Here’s an example of his burst and acceleration as he slips the first tackle and then breaks into the clear.
On this play, Holmes displays his elusiveness to spin out of a tackle and break into space. This eventually resulted in a length-of-the-field try.
He displays some power on this spectacular highlight, trucking the tackler and continuing to drive ahead for positive yardage.
Holmes will finish strong and constantly fights for extra yardage, like on this play where he drove two tacklers for several extra yards.
Holmes is likely to have a good nose for the end zone, if his scoring record in rugby is anything to go by. He scored 17 tries in 13 games for Australia and another eight in five games representing the state of Queensland. He averaged approximately two tries every three games for his club side and is particularly adept at reaching the ball out to reach the goal line.
Ball security might require something of an adjustment from Holmes, although he didn’t ever seem to lose the ball while being tackled in rugby. He won’t be used to having several players scraping after the ball or receiving a helmet to the bicep, so he’s going to have to develop good habits in terms of establishing the “five points of pressure” consistently.
Holmes’ running skills would seem perfect for a return role. However, the main challenge will be whether he is able to catch the ball reliably and make good decisions about when to field the ball and where to run.
In rugby league, teams usually kick the ball away on the sixth tackle, because if you’re tackled six times in one possession without scoring, you lose the ball - similar to how you get four downs in the NFL. Therefore, the fullback and wingers often have to field kicks, sometimes under pressure.
While he would have been required to field more kicks at fullback, because he’ll have been manning deep center field on defense as opposed to lined up out wide, Holmes shows he can field a high kick confidently on this play.
The return game might not be the only place where Holmes can contribute on special teams. Rugby league players are required to play both offense and defense so he’ll have some transferable experience in terms of tackling and covering kicks.
As noted, rugby league teams usually kick away on the sixth tackle. Here, Holmes covers the kick and gets in on the tackle. Note how he stays wide to ensure lane integrity before getting in on the stop.
While Holmes isn’t known for his defensive abilities, he shows some good technique on this tackle in space.
He also showcases his speed and chases a runner down on this tackle to save a try.
Holmes has also done some goal kicking during his rugby career and could theoretically be a good option as an emergency placekicker or punter in the event of an injury.
Holmes can clearly be a weapon in space but the most difficult adjustment he’ll need to make is following his blocks and making decisive reads.
Playing on the wing would often mean he got the ball in space with a chance to take on a defender one-on-one. However, he would have been tasked with making tougher yardage up the middle when at the fullback position and, in fact, came in-field quite often when lined up as a winger, so he does have some experience of reading the field ahead of him and looking for gaps in the defense.
In anticipation of a special teams role, it’s worth noting that gap and lane integrity responsibilities in rugby league are very similar to those required at the NFL level on special teams.
Here’s a play where he is the outside defender so he can’t tackle the player with the ball immediately, otherwise that player will simply pass it to the winger on the outside and they’ll run down the sideline to probably score. Holmes plays this well, delaying the pass and then making a well-timed tackle that leads to an inaccurate pass and enables the rest of the defense to get across.
However, on this play, he stays with the outside guy too long and allows the player with the ball to run right past him for big yardage.
There are no forward passes in rugby. However, you can kick the ball downfield to a teammate, as long as that teammate is behind or level with the you when the ball is kicked. This is a weapon Holmes’ teams have used a lot, kicking it up for him to go and get. For example, on this play, he comes down with a contested catch for a score.
Of course, Holmes could be a weapon if catching short passes in space. He looks competent working on this in practice footage.
He’s likely to be raw in terms of his route running and instincts to find an open space in zone coverage, but the Jets could still get him involved on screen passes and wheel routes.
Holmes looks reasonably comfortable and natural catching passes in practice footage. In addition to catching downfield kicks, he’s also shown a knack for intercepting lateral passes when playing defense, often returning them the distance. Here’s one on which he made a spectacular diving catch.
In the World Cup Final, he almost intercepted a pass for what would have been a game-clinching try, but dropped this one.
Blocking is one thing that rugby league players never have to do. In fact, it’s illegal if you block off a defensive player from making a tackle, even if it’s inadvertent. The closest thing to blocking in rugby is the scrum, but Holmes played two positions that don’t participate in scrums.
Pass protection is therefore going to be a learning curve for him. While he should have the physicality to handle such an assignment, Holmes might lack the technique and may struggle to identify where blitzes are coming from, at least initially.
Colin Scotts, a third-round pick who became the first Australian position player to play in the NFL back in 1987, has praised Holmes’ work-ethic. He specifically mentioned his mental edge, application and obsession for the game.
Having already succeeded at the highest level, albeit in a different sport, Holmes should have a professional demeanor and a mature approach to the game. In fact, he may be further along in that regard than most of the other young players.
The only negative on him is that at least one of his teammates was upset that he turned his back on his team after they voted him player of the year by opting to cancel his contract and head to the NFL.
Holmes hasn’t had many injury issues while playing rugby. He showed some toughness by playing through a Charley horse in 2015 and suffered a minor hamstring injury in 2017.
Holmes looks like he could be good in a one-cut running scheme and his decisive running style could work well with a zone blocking scheme. However, over the next year, you can expect him to get work in all kind of roles as the Jets seek to teach him the ropes and accelerate the learning process.
There’s obviously a lot of projection involved with a player like Holmes, who has some transferable skills but is also going to have to work on a lot of things that are completely alien to him.
You might ask how this is any different to Hayden Smith, who made it onto the Jets’ roster back in 2012, but didn’t make much of an on-field impact and, after initially impressing in camp, he ended up falling down the depth chart when they signed Kellen Winslow.
However, the two cannot really be compared. Smith was much bigger, less athletic and had played as a forward in rugby union rather than rugby league so he would have had even fewer transferable skills. Rugby league has more in common with football than rugby union does.
A better comparison is Jarryd Hayne who made it onto the 49ers roster back in 2015 in the same kind of role Holmes is trying to earn with the Jets. After some initial success, Hayne had problems with ball security and was benched, then opted to retire the following season rather than learn a new playbook after the 49ers changed their coach.
There are some differences between Hayne and Holmes, many of which work in Holmes’ favor. Hayne was bigger (6’3” and 225) but Holmes ran a faster 40 (Hayne ran 4.53). Hayne was also four years older when he signed his first NFL contract. Hayne also played fullback and center, but not on the wing, so he’d have had more of an infield role.
Furthermore, Hayne has had some off-field issues and - despite the fact that the 49ers were impressed by how quickly he adapted to the NFL game - Scotts says Holmes has a much better work ethic. Holmes’ international resume is arguably better than Haynes’ already too, although it may be inaccurate to call him a bigger star at this stage of their respective careers.
Holmes has been viewed as something of a novelty for the Jets, but it may be premature to rule out his chances of eventually becoming a contributor at the NFL level. He has a ton of talent and the desire to learn how he can fill in the holes in his game.
Most likely, Holmes sits on the practice squad all season and then has a chance to make the active roster on a futures deal next year if he’s impressive enough to warrant a second look. With the potential he displays, there’s a decent chance of that.