Making the case against signing Santonio Holmes

Holmes skill set to play in any offense. Can play “x” (weak side) or “z” (strong side, more motion + movement). Excellent RAC ability. — Greg Cosell on Twitter

NFL Films contributor and generally bright football mind Greg Cosell is one of Santonio Holmes’ biggest proponents.  Perhaps not his biggest proponent: that would be Jets head coach Rex Ryan in terms of both physical stature and in terms of support of the player that Ryan referred to as the Jets’ best player.

Anyway, the allure of Santonio Holmes is pretty clear.  Scheme trancendent players make great free agency targets.  The Redskins thought they had a player who would trancend scheme when they signed Albert Haynesworth.  They were not correct, but you could see their belief inherent in the way they structured his contract.  Cullen Jenkins is alledgedly a Redskin target this free agent season, and his pass rush-dominant skill set translated from a 4-3 formation to a 3-4 formation in a way that would have been tough to conceptualize if I hadn’t seen it happen myself.  Nnamdi Asomugha figures to command a fortune in part because he could be an elite cornerback for each one of the 32 NFL teams, and will be peppered with offers once free agency opens.  Santonio Holmes, perhaps along with just Sidney Rice at wide receiver, belong in this class.

Because the Redskins have an aging coach, they need to invest their dollars in scheme trancendent players with future value.  The good part of a John Beck led 2011 season is that hes not expensive, there’s a market inefficiency at the quarterback position just begging to be taken advantage of, and the Redskins are attempting to do that.  Beck is going to be heavily managed, and he’s only going to be as successful as the talent around him.

Holmes is a really good player with a lot of value.  But is he a great wide receiver?  The answer to that is less clear.  Holmes really set the bar high in his first two years as a pro in Pittsburgh, setting himself up for a breakout 2008 season.  And though we all remember the catch in the super bowl and the catch on the very front of the goal line (or one yard line if you know a Ravens fan) to deliver the division and Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh, Holmes didn’t break out in 2008.  He was rather pedestrian in fact.  Holmes’ catch rate tanked to 45.5%, and his yards per catch average and TD rate fell as well.

Now, Santonio Holmes rebounded in his final season with the Steelers for a 1248 yard career high season, 79 receptions, and perhaps most significantly, zero fumbles.  The 2008 season seemed to be a fluke caused at least in part by Roethlisberger’s own struggles in the regular season that year.  So you could write Holmes a pass.  He got in some hot water, and the Steelers dealt him for a fifth round pick to the Jets, which just seems low to this day.  But it was just a single remaining season on his contract, and that was surely a consideration.

As a Jet, Holmes increased his downfield presence, catching a higher percentage of deep passes versus his role as a Steeler.  This is a good example of Santonio Holmes’ versatility.  He was used more in the downfield passing game and his TD total went up despite being suspended for the first four games of the season.  The only problem was that his yards per reception stat actually fell in 2010, and that’s the most troubling thing, to me, about Santonio Holmes as a free agent.  But before we can pass judgement on Holmes, I need to formulate a theory on why this one crucial stat fell for Holmes in 2010 despite nothing else in the statistical record that suggests decline.

A breakdown of Holmes’ touchdown record suggests that one problem was that he may have been easily defended in 2010.  He had that gamewinning TD against the Browns in OT.  That was his first TD of the season.  It was his fifth game.  A week later he scored two TDs against the Texans, who struggled to cover anyone that year.  That was half his TD total for the season.  Holmes was really hot in the middle of the year.  But as we went into the playoffs, Holmes managed just seven receptions for fewer than seventy yards.  

It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the culprit here is Jets QB Mark Sanchez.  If that’s actually true, Holmes might not be such a great target for the Redskins this offseason.  My biggest worry about Holmes fits the “easy to cover” narrative.  His splits from the 2010 season show that the teams that see him the most do the best job of limiting his production.

Santonio Holmes is a really good NFL receiver who is likely to be a very rich NFL receiver.  He’s not some horrible investment.  Problem is, it’s very unclear if he’s worth the megabucks he’s going to get on the open market.  If the argument against Sidney Rice or Vincent Jackson is that they just had one good season in 2009 and a bunch of injury riddled, unremarkable season, well, then we can talk all we want about Santonio Holmes’ tape, good bill of health, and run after catch ability, but it just isn’t clear if he will be able to play to his career statistical totals with the Redskins or some other team in 2010.  Because in his career, Holmes has been very, very clutch in defining moments, but only passable on non-defining downs.  And buying his rights with a huge contract doesn’t just saddle a team with Santonio Holmes with the game on the line, but also on an October Sunday in Week 4 when the running game is struggling to get going in the first half and someone on the offense needs to provide the spark.  

Holmes may or may not be too easy to cover in those situations.  And it’s going to cost a ton of money to find out.  I’d hitch my wagon to Sidney Rice instead.

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