If you weren't employed in the NFL draft realm, or perhaps one of the average 25,751 in attendance watching the Southern Miss Golden Eagles play last year, the selection of Jamie Collins by the New England Patriots might have come as a surprise.
Before day two of the 2013 NFL draft kicked off, I called Collins a "freak athlete that would look great in a Patriots uniform."
Looking back, until the New England Patriots' 34-31 victory over the Denver Broncos, that line looked pretty silly.
Collins had played just 96 snaps coming into Week 12, including four combined snaps in games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers. In his limited playing time, Collins had yet to make his mark with an impact play.
Against Denver, however, Collins had his workload increased to 22 snaps. He certainly made the most of his chances, totaling 10 tackles, a quarterback pressure and a pass deflection.
The pressure and deflection were two of the biggest plays of the game. The pressure—diagrammed below—helped stall a Broncos drive when they had the wind at their back, while knocking the ball out of Wes Welker's hands furthered Peyton Manning's offensive woes.
The Patriots are lined up here in a 2-4 or 4-2—depending on how you count Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich—with Dane Fletcher and Collins in at linebacker.
This was the initial look that Manning saw and made his first pre-snap calls based on the pictured formation.
Right after Manning made his calls, Fletcher and Collins crept to the line and threatened both of the A-gaps—immediately to the right and left of the center—as Wes Welker motioned into the picture.
Manning didn't make any further calls, so one of three things was occurring. Either Manning anticipated the blitz, thought the Patriots were bluffing or had a hot route at the ready.
Fletcher and Collins weren't bluffing. They executed an "X" blitz, trying to out-leverage the center and catch the blocking running back out of position.
Center Manny Ramirez looked to have had Collins as his assignment, but when Collins paused, he had to deal with Fletcher angling into his chest. Knowshon Moreno had Fletcher as his assignment as well. The Patriots blitz has worked to perfection up to this point.
As Manning looked for his receiver, Fletcher pushed Ramirez to the offense's left, opening up a lane for Collins. Moreno still has his eyes set on Fletcher, oblivious at this point to the oncoming threat.
Just as Moreno made contact with Fletcher—doubling him with Ramirez—he saw Collins coming around on the stunt.
Fletcher made a savvy move here and gave a subtle tug on Moreno, raising his center of gravity and preventing him from squaring up effectively. With Moreno slightly out of position, Collins powered through him with authority, flushing Manning from the pocket.
As Manning escaped the pocket, he lost control of the ball and had to go to the ground to recover his fumble. Collins was right there to clean up the mess for an easy sack.
The play design was fantastic, but Collins' timing, explosiveness and power created this pressure on Manning.
If the Patriots coaches—defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and linebackers coach Pepper Johnson—are able to put Collins in positions that accentuate his strengths, Patriots fans will be treated to impact plays on a more regular basis.
Even if Collins continues to play a small role—20 to 30 snaps per game—this year, look for that to increase next year.
Current "Sam" linebacker Brandon Spikes—Dont'a Hightower also sees time at the position—will be a free-agent after this season, and it is speculated that he won't be re-signed. Ben Volin from The Boston Globe nailed it last week in his piece on the Patriots' impending free agents.
Spikes is slow and a liability in pass coverage, which hurts his value in the increasingly-pass happy NFL. With Mayo, Hightower, and Jamie Collins locked in, Spikes may have to settle for $1 million-$2 million guaranteed if he wants to return to the Patriots, if they want him at all. Wendell certainly could be brought back on a short-term deal for about $2 million-$3 million guaranteed.
Where Spikes is slow and a liability, Collins is finally able to harness his speed and coverage skills. When Collins fully emerges and spreads his wings, I think we'll see Spikes wearing a different uniform.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com and the premium section of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).