Nine games into the season and New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins has seen cornerback Logan Ryan return an interception 79 yards for a touchdown, safety Duron Harmon pick off two passes and defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones combine for six sacks.
He has watched receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson catch four touchdowns each and have 100-yard receiving games.
Meanwhile, all he has to show for his rookie season is 15 combined tackles.
So is the life of a coverage linebacker.
Collins has played in every game this season. As the Patriots’ top selection in the 2013 NFL draft, high expectations were placed on Collins to be the same productive player he was at Southern Mississippi.
But becoming a disruptive presence on New England’s defense is difficult because the defense is established. Linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower form a young and physical unit. And though Collins was an effective pass-rusher at the college level (16.5 sacks and 39.5 tackles for a loss in his final two seasons combined for Southern Mississippi), defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich aren’t going anywhere.
Collins is earning playing time mostly by dropping into coverage. It’s a vital, yet unsung, role that Collins seemingly has performed well so far. Like an offensive lineman, a coverage linebacker is doing his job well when his name is not called. At the same time, a linebacker in coverage is almost never highlighted when the ball doesn’t come in his direction.
The only time the spotlight shone on Collins was in a replay of him and Mayo double-teaming Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez during the Patriots’ game-winning red-zone stand. The cameras were following Gonzalez, but for that one moment, Collins had his name called.
After Mayo tore his pectoral muscle, Collins had an opportunity for increased playing time. With Mayo placed on injured reserve, Collins started two games, but only totaled eight tackles against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers game Collins was back as a reserve after the Patriots traded for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga. The former Philadelphia Eagle was immediately inserted into the starting lineup with Chris Jones sliding to defensive end and Chandler Jones stepping back to linebacker.
How much playing time will Collins see going forward? Besides the Sopoaga addition, defensive end Andre Carter was brought back, allowing New England even more flexibility on defense.
Against the Steelers, Collins had just two snaps, tying his season low against the Buffalo Bills, according to ESPN.com. If New England’s coaching staff decides to exploit Collins’ versatility more, he could see playing time rushing the passer as well as in coverage.
But with Carter and Sopoaga fortifying the defense, and if Chris Jones continues to produce (and if defensive tackle Armond Armstead is activated from the non-football illness list), Collins will continue to have a hard time making an impact like his rookie teammates.
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