Why Val can make it...and why he can’t
ALMOST four years after Jarryd Hayne-mania engulfed Australian sport we're set to do it all again with Valentine Holmes seriously considering walking out on the Sharks to pursue a career in the NFL.
When Hayne made his trailblazing move to the 49ers there was one question on everybody's mind - can he do it?
We're all a little older and a little wiser in the ways of the pigskin, but the question remains the same. Can Holmes, at 23 years old and just reaching the peak of his powers as a rugby league player, make the switch?
WHY HE CAN MAKE IT...
1) He's got time
Hayne was 26 when he announced he was walking out on Parramatta and 27 when he put the pads on for the first time. Simply put, he left his run too late in his career. Hayne reportedly first wanted to give the NFL a try in 2011 at the age of 23, but his planned move to collegiate football fell apart because he did not complete his HSC. From all reports, Holmes intends to go straight to the pros and because he's got time on his side that's the biggest advantage he has over Hayne.
Hypothetically, if Holmes was to sign with an NFL franhicse they could afford to keep him on their practice squad for a season or more while Holmes learns the intricacies of the new sport. As we learned with Hayne, raw athleticism is not enough to make the grade in the NFL - learning the ins and outs of American football to a satisfactory degree that allows Holmes to compete with men who have played it all their life will be a serious challenge and the longer Holmes can spend on a squad the more likely he is to make it.
2) The way he runs
A major challenge for Hayne was keeping his pad level low - in layman's terms, he ran too upright for an NFL running back. If we assume Holmes will also try to make it as a running back/kick returner (although he may have designs on operating as a wide receiver) he may be better suited to the position than Hayne.
Holmes has a naturally lower centre of gravity than Hayne and a more economical running style. He's also able to change direction at speed more adeptly than Hayne was when he took up with the 49ers.
3) He's been tested
Hayne's American football experience in 2014 amounted to a couple of training sessions with part-timers from UTS in Sydney. He impressed with an open trial in San Diego and managed to land a start with the 49ers while going in reasonably cold.
Holmes at the very least is a little more on the radar of NFL scouts. Recall the drills and trials he went through in 2016 alongside Jason Taumalolo, which was attended by representatives from 14 NFL teams. Five teams expressed interest in putting the pair through further testing.
It's not a guarantee of a start, but it is a start. Holmes is far more a known commodity than Hayne was in 2014 when it comes to the NFL scene.
4) There's more of a pathway for non-NFL athletes
The NFL have had a serious go at bringing in athletes from non-American football backgrounds into the league in the past few years via the International Pathways Program. The most notable name to come out of the program thus far is Australia's own Jordan Mailata, who was drafted by Philadelphia earlier this year before he even played a down.
Two former rugby union players Alex Gray, an ex-England Under 20s international, and Christian Scotland-Williamson, a former Worcester Warriors lock, have joined the Atlanta and Pittsburgh practice squads respectively as tight ends.
There is more of an established pathway for international players to make the NFL then there was in 2015 and that's an advantage for Holmes.
...AND WHY HE CAN'T
1) It's a different sport
This is a simple point but it can't be stressed enough. Hayne did enormously well just to make an opening day roster and stay with the 49ers for an entire season, such is the learning curve between rugby league and American football.
The two sports require a different type of athleticism - the NFL is a league for power athletes, and aerobic fitness is of secondary concern compared to the NRL where it's much more of a 50/50 proposition.
That's to say nothing of the steep technical learning curve that awaits Holmes - NFL playbooks are as thick as encyclopedias and he has to learn every play in it, not to mention the nuances, audibles and changes within each play.
It cannot be overstated - Holmes is trying to switch to a totally different sport which bears only the slightest resemblance to the one he plays now and he is doing so while trying to learn basics his opponents mastered as children. The degree of difficulty here is incredibly high.
Even the basic things, like running the ball and catching kicks, must be re-learned. Holmes has to master things like running between tackles, having the patience to allow his offensive line to open up gaps, pass-blocking and play-action, learning how to run routes and a million other things. The learning curve is unbelievably steep.
The players competing with him for spots have known how to do this all their lives. It's a fair lead for Holmes to try and run down.
2) Does he have the right shape?
Holmes' running style might make him more adept for the NFL than Hayne but his body type is a bit of a problem.
Leonard Fournette, currently with the Jacksonville Jaguars, stands roughly the same height as Holmes but is 18 kilograms heavier and ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash. Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants is also of a similar height but is 14 kilograms heavier and ran a 4.40.
Holmes ran a 4.6, which would be considered below average. Fournette and Barkley are two of the best running back prospects in recent years but that is the sort of player Holmes would be competing against to make it in the NFL.
While Holmes may have Hayne covered in terms maneuverability and ability to retain speed while changing direction, Hayne was far more robust and a more dynamic and explosive runner. It's a subjective thing, but to this writer's eye Hayne in 2014 was a superior athlete and more suited to the NFL than Holmes is right now.
Additionally, it bears repeating the caliber of athlete Holmes is competing against. It's a simple fact of mathematics that a country with a population of 325.7 million people will have a greater number of freak athletes than a country of 25 million. In Australian sport, Holmes is a special, rare athlete. In America he's much closer to standard.
3) He didn't dazzle at the trial
Holmes underwent his NFL testing with Jason Taumalolo, the freak of rugby league freaks, and the Tongan was considered the more likely prospect. One scout at their tryout in 2016 described Taumalolo as "unique" and said he would likely be offered a deal if he moved to America.
Holmes was not as coveted. His 40-yard dash time was 4.6 sec, well below the 4.49 seconds average time for NFL running backs or the 4.48 time for wide receivers. To compare, Hayne's 40-yard time was 4.53, far closer to regulation NFL speed.
4) He doesn't have the novelty or gravitas of Hayne
It is not my suggestion to imply Hayne only made the 49ers squad because of the novelty factor but it didn't hurt him either. The cachet of being a "two-time National Rugby League MVP" and the sheer oddity of one of the best players in the NRL trying to make it in the NFL was a fair talking point in the 2015 NFL pre-season.
Hayne's move to the NFL was the biggest sports story in the country for just about 12 months. I have still never seen anything like it. Public interest can count in these situations and Holmes just won't have the same hype or wider support as Hayne.
I was sceptical when Hayne announced his move and was pleasantly surprised when he made the 49ers squad. Despite being proven wrong on that occasion I have to say the same of Holmes.
To my eye, Hayne was a superior athlete. While Holmes does have youth on his side will he have the patience to spend at least a season on the practice squad, training like a mad thing with no prospect of playing?
The unknowable portion at this point is Holmes' ability to pick up the nuances of the American game quickly - while I do not doubt Holmes' intelligence as a footballer again, I must back against him. These are two totally different sports, that cannot be stressed enough.
Throw in his awkward size and the calibre of athlete he is competing against and I must express skepticism at Holmes' chances.
Having said that it would be a great achievement if he was even to earn a contract with an NFL side and it'd be a tremendous achievement.