Earlier this week the Pittsburgh Steelers announced that they had signed wide receiver Johnny Holton after he was waived by the Philedelphia Eagles the week prior. Holton is not a massive free agent acquisition; he is nowhere close to that. He is coming off a season in which he played in just one game and his best statistical season came in 2017 when he recorded nine receptions for 218 yards and three touchdowns. The wide receiver’s signing should barely move the needle when it comes to the Steelers’ 2019 offseason but perhaps there is more to the signing than meets the eye.
A closer look at Holton’s special teams experience shows that perhaps he is not just another camp body to fill the roster but just maybe, he is the Steelers’ answer to replacing special teams ace Darrius Heyward-Bey. After five seasons in Pittsburgh, the veteran wide receiver was not offered another contract and is one of the many remaining free agents on the market. The now 32-year old wide receiver only recorded nine receptions over his last three seasons in Pittsburgh but with his blazing speed, he was a mainstay on the team’s special teams unit. When looking at the characteristics and skillset of both Heyward-Bey and Holton, there are many similarities to note.
Both are incredibly fast, with Holton running a 4.42 40-yard dash at the 2016 NFL Combine and their speed has led to them being gifted gunners on special teams and occasional deep threats. Heyward-Bey has recorded 33 receptions during his time with the Steelers and 11 of them have gone for 30 yards or more. Anytime Holton has touched the football, as unfrequently as that has been, it has typically gone for a big gain with four of his 11 receptions going for 30 yards or more.
Now for the stuff everyone is just dying to hear about – special teams. Heyward-Bey has been the face of the Steelers’ special teams since his arrival in 2014, logging 894 special teams snaps during that time. While the Steelers have mixed and matched punters over the last five seasons, Heyward-Bey sprinting down the sideline has remained consistent. Perhaps the Steelers feel that age has finally caught up to the veteran receiver but the team does have a big void as Heyward-Bey was an important gunner for the team. Holton may not be at Heyward-Bey’s level yet but there are signs that he could grow into his role.
The 27-year old Holton has logged 329 special team snaps during his three seasons with the Oakland Raiders. While he just played five special team snaps last season, the receiver has shown promise in a special team’s role. Holton logged 12 special team tackles during the 2016 season, good for 14th in the NFL and added another five special team tackles during the 2017 season. With his 4.4 speed, the former Raiders’ receiver is an excellent choice for the gunner role as he is extremely difficult to beat in a foot race. Holton is the left gunner on the play below.
Before coming to Pittsburgh in 2014, Heyward-Bey, then 27 years old, had totalled just 29 special team snaps. Holton who is also just 27 years old comes with a multitude of special teams experience already and with the same blazing speed that Heyward-Bey possessed. The Steelers have reserved a roster spot for Heyward-Bey’s special team duties for years now and should they be looking for someone to carry on with his responsibilities, Holton would be the most logical fit.