Breaking Down Holton Hill’s Standout NFL Debut

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In his first NFL start last Sunday night against the Saints, undrafted rookie cornerback Holton Hill earned the highest coverage grade of any Viking on the year.

Hill played every snap against future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees.  He was only targeted three times, and he only allowed one catch for six yards over the entire game.  It’s an admittedly small sample size, but on 91 snaps, Holton Hill is currently allowing a passer rating of 24.5, the lowest passer rating allowed of any qualifying corner in the NFL.

Hill made his NFL debut tasked with filling the giant shoes of first-team all-pro Xavier Rhodes, who missed the game due to an ankle injury.  Not only did Hill fill those shoes—he arguably played as well as Rhodes has all year long.

Where did this kid come from?  And was this just beginner’s luck, or does the tape show someone who could keep it up, and develop into something special?

How Did Such a Talented Corner Go Undrafted?

Hill has a tantalizing combination of size, speed and quickness.  At 6’2″, with 32″ arms, he’s one of the tallest, longest corners around, and he’s got above average speed and agility to boot, as you can see in his MockDraftable spider chart below:

6’2″ corners with 4.49-second 40-yard-dashes don’t just grow on trees, and in college Hill was as skilled as he was gifted.  In 2017 at Texas, Hill allowed an NFL passer rating in coverage of just 48.1, did not allow a single touchdown all year, and recorded one of the best yards allowed per coverage snap among all draft-eligible corners in the nation.

But beyond stats, Hill could ball.  He was a tough, instinctive, aggressive defender and flashed ability in everything from press to off to man to zone.  Like a young Xavier Rhodes, sometimes he could get a bit grabby, or give up separation at the break, or fail to locate the ball in the air, but the upside was there.  Some scouts had a second or third-round grade on Hill, and Arif Hasan’s Consensus Board ranked him at the tail end of the third round.

So the talent and skill was all there.  But Hill went undrafted in the wake of his 2017 team suspension and after testing positive for marijuana at the NFL combine.

The Vikings took a chance on him.  Xavier Rhodes took him under his wing.  And so far, Holton Hill has been paying immediate dividends.  His talent was obvious on Sunday night:

Hill Was Lockdown In Coverage

Holton Hill was only targeted three times this game, and only gave up six yards.  Here is each of those targets:

The first pass in the red zone, Austin Carr runs a quick in route.  Hill breaks on the route well and is in a good position to stop the play for minimal gain, but Brees misses wide on the throw, and both Carr and Hill stumble breaking back to the ball.

The second pass, Tre’Quan Smith runs a quick out route.  Hill again breaks on the route quickly and takes an aggressive angle to the receiver, which you could almost criticize, except Hill makes the shoestring tackle.  This is the only catch he allowed all game, and even this play was a good one.

The third pass, Smith is running a quick curl.  Hill does a phenomenal job reading Brees’ eyes here while simultaneously watching the route unfold, and as a result, he’s breaking on the route before the ball even leaves Brees’ hands.  That is a special level of instincts and awareness to see from a rookie.  From the broadcast angle, you can see Hill might have even had a pick six here had he undercut the route:

Hill comes away only with a forced incompletion, but with those kinds of instincts, more interceptions will come with time.

Hill Matched Up Against Mike Thomas and Had No Problems

Holton Hill largely played the left side of the field.  And because Mike Thomas often lined up on the outside, that meant undrafted rookie Holton Hill often went head-to-head against PFF’s #3 receiver last year.

Hill didn’t give up a single catch to Thomas.

On this play, Mike Thomas runs a quick out against Eric Wilson, but Hill reads the play perfectly and tackles Thomas for a great stop on first down:

Austin Carr here motions out wide by the sideline and runs a fade, which is really just a dummy route to clear space for Mike Thomas’ quick out.  Thomas matches up against a linebacker, giving him natural outside leverage on top of the mismatch.

Seems like a slam dunk on paper, but the only problem is Holton Hill sees it all before it happens.  Hill reads Brees the whole way and doesn’t even hesitate abandoning Carr’s go route because he knows this ball is going to Thomas.  Hill aggressively breaks on Thomas’ route, then makes a big tackle in space to stop Thomas in his tracks.  Great read, great tackle.

This next play isn’t nearly as flashy, but it does show a few things:

First, Mackensie Alexander comes out lining up on the wrong side of the field.  The first person to point that out and get him to his spot is Holton Hill, the rookie.  Rookies don’t normally know the playbook better than vets.

Second, Holton Hill presses up against Mike Thomas, one-on-one, with no safety help, on third down.  He doesn’t bat an eye.

Third, while Thomas’ route isn’t anything special here (the play is designed for Kamara, with two rub routes to create space against man coverage), Hill presses him to the sideline and blankets him on the route.  It is hard to find corners who can play both off zone and press man just as well in Zimmer’s diverse defense; these last two plays show that Hill can do it all as a rookie.

This next play came on third-and-14, so Hill helping tackle for the third down stop is not going to make any highlight reels:

But this play shows a few key traits.  First, Hill understands down and distance.  He knows exactly where the third down marker is, which is why he stands right in Thomas’ way to make sure Thomas never gets there.  But second, and more impressively, Hill stonewalls Mike Thomas while simultaneously reading Drew Brees.  Hill once again breaks on the underneath route before Brees lets go of the pass, and together with Gedeon, stops Kamara to bring up fourth down.

Hill Was Not Perfect, But He Did Flash the Traits of a Complete Corner

Hill was did his job in run defense, though plays were often cleaned up before Hill even got to the ball carrier:

Hill does a good job shedding the block from the tight end to make the tackle on Mark Ingram in the first play.  On the other plays, were it not for Hill’s history of aggressive run pursuit, you could almost criticize Hill’s aversion to contact, though part of it is Hill maintaining contain on the edge as well.

On this next play, either Hill or Mackensie Alexander appear to leave their receiver wide open in the end zone:

Both Hill and Mack follow Mike Thomas on his flat route, leaving the outside receiver wide open in the end zone.  Because the linebackers drop back into zones, while the right side of the field snaps into man coverage, this looks like a pattern matching zone, in which case I am inclined to guess that Hill was correct to take Mike Thomas’ out-breaking route.  But it’s possible Mack and Hill were in man coverage and Hill blew his assignment before scrambling back to his man.  In either case, both are lucky that Drew Brees completely missed the open receiver and committed intentional grounding.

But despite any mistakes, Hill flashed traits that have to excite the coaches about his upside down the road.  Linval Joseph blew up this screen for a five-yard tackle for loss, but it’s Holton Hill’s play on the back end that is my favorite part of this play:

The two receivers left here are only running decoy routes to clear room for the screen, but Hill does not know that, and he runs the receivers’ routes for them.  Particularly impressive is how fluidly Hill flips his hips and executes this speed turn without missing a beat.  Hill’s play here had no effect on the outcome of the play, but his slippery hips, quick footwork, route recognition and play awareness to come out of his turn and immediately read the field are things that can take a cornerback years to learn.  Hill is just a natural.

It’s a Small Sample Size, but It’s Exciting Nonetheless

Holton Hill played every snap on Sunday, tasked with trying to slow down Drew Brees, Mike Thomas and the rest of the Saints’ offense.  Hill only gave up six yards all game, and finished with the best coverage grade of any Viking on the year.

Yes, it’s a small sample size, but Hill currently has the 9th-best grade among all cornerbacks this year and the lowest passer rating allowed of any qualifying cornerback.

Holton Hill will not keep that pace up—he is still a work in progress.  But the tape shows that he is already way ahead of the development curve.  His aggressiveness, instincts, play recognition and technique all show that he is a good player already, and could be something special down the road.