Not often does a team's first pick in the draft go unnoticed for almost the entire season, but when the New England Patriots drafted linebacker Jamie Collins in the second round in the 2013 draft, it wasn't so that he could come in and contribute immediately.
The Patriots saw an opportunity to groom a versatile, athletic defensive player in a number of ways. As a result, while Collins didn't play much over the course of the season, Bill Belichick is finally reaping the rewards of his behind-the-scenes work with the rookie.
It seems one of these types of players emerges for the Patriots every year in the playoffs. In 2011, it was cornerback Sterling Moore with his famous pass breakup in the end zone against the Baltimore Ravens. In 2012, it was running back Shane Vereen with a sudden outburst as a pass-catcher against the Houston Texans. This year, it's Collins.
Who is Collins, and what has led to this emergence?
What Makes Him an X-Factor?
Collins is the embodiment of one of sports' most clichéd catchphrases: the X-factor.
The "X" comes from the unknown. We sometimes use the phrase to define a player who could have an impact on the game, for better or worse, but in Collins' case, his "X" comes from his versatility.
|Games||Snaps||Snap %||Run def.||Pass rush||Pass cov.|
Source: Pro Football Focus
Prior to arriving in the NFL, Collins had gained experience at every level of the defense: from safety to inside and outside linebacker to rush defensive end. As a result, Collins has been a jack-of-all-trades defender for the Patriots, doing everything from rushing the passer to stuffing the run to dropping into coverage, and being effective in every role.
There was an element of the unknown with Collins, because no one knew exactly where he projected in the Patriots' defense. Entering the season, they had starters in place at all of his best-fit positions. Linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower had things held down at the second level, while defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were locked in as the starters on the edge.
That only afforded the Patriots more time to groom him; while some draft picks are thrust into unfavorable situations out of necessity, Collins was a luxury addition to the defense.
Now, with injuries all over the front seven (most specifically to Spikes and Mayo), Collins is getting a chance to show his athleticism and flex his versatility muscles in a variety of roles.
"I've seen it ever since he’s gotten here and ever since OTAs, you can definitely tell how athletic the guy is," Hightower said. "He's probably one of the most athletic guys on the team and it didn't take him long to kind of get a grasp on what was going on and for him to make plays like that everybody else might be surprised, but we see it every day and for him to come out and have the game that he did, I wasn't surprised at all.”
Rushing the Passer (Blitz)
Collins' last position at Southern Mississippi was defensive end. He isn't rushing the passer from a three-point stance, like he was in college, but he's still finding ways to get after the quarterback, and the Patriots are putting him in good position to do so.
The Patriots were in a nickel defense on this play, with the defensive line in a straight rush and Collins bringing pressure through the B-gap between the right guard and right tackle. With Ninkovich occupying the tackle, and defensive tackle Chris Jones taking up the right guard, a space was opened up for Collins to break through the line of scrimmage.
Running back Donald Brown was waiting for him and squared up to try to put the brakes on Collins' rush. However, Collins put his defensive-lineman-like strength on display and bowled right over Brown on his way to Luck.
The ball was thrown before Collins got there, but it fell incomplete, thanks in large part to the pressure and hit.
Collins was not done yet. He came on the pressure through the A-gap on this play, but initially, the Colts had picked up the rushers. However, Collins took matters into his own hands. He took on the block from Brown, hurdling him on his way to the quarterback.
He showed incredible awareness to stay high, seeing Brown go low for the block and leaping over him without hardly losing any speed.
Whether it's in a running or passing situation, defenders have tried (and failed) to go low to successfully block Collins.
Collins has rushed the passer on a limited basis this year and hasn't had much success until last week. Whether he's hit his stride or simply capitalized on a golden opportunity, we'll find out with time. Either way, his athleticism will come in handy in other ways.
This could be Collins' most important role of the week. Broncos tight end Julius Thomas was absent for the Patriots' previous meeting with the Broncos, but with the big, athletic "move" tight end back in the lineup, the Patriots will need to have an answer for him.
If Collins plays anything like he did against Colts tight end Coby Fleener, the Patriots should be okay.
Collins' experience as a defensive back makes him one of the rare linebackers that can reliably cover a tight end in man-to-man situations. That's exactly what happened against Fleener.
Notice how Collins is lined up in press coverage, just a couple feet away from Fleener at the line of scrimmage. Once the ball is snapped and Fleener enters his route, you'd have a hard time differentiating Collins from a defensive back. He gets his hands on Fleener, quickly flips his hips to stay with the tight end in stride and gets his head around to look for the ball.
Collins mistimed his jump just slightly, or else he might have been able to intercept this ball. Instead, his hands got in the way of Fleener's, and the ball fell incomplete.
Collins' quick hips were on display once again on a pass intended for Fleener, only this time, Collins was able to intercept the pass.
It's remarkable he was even able to get in position to make the play. Collins started out lined up a yard off the line of scrimmage at the snap and was set to drop into an intermediate zone between the hashes. Fleener, running the deep post route, should have been able to clear the linebacker.
Instead, Collins' instincts were on display as he followed the tight end as he ran deeper into the Patriots secondary. He backpedaled and side-shuffled as Fleener ran the post route. Once again, he flipped his hips to keep stride with Fleener, but this time, he had to flip them a full 180 degrees just to get in position.
He was only in trail for a brief moment before he was back in position.
Despite all those circumstances, Collins got himself in the right place at the right time to make the play.
Of course, it probably helped at least a little bit that Luck and the Colts were in desperation mode at this point, down 14 points in the fourth quarter, and needed to force a throw to make something happen.
Don't take anything away from this play by Collins, though; all around, this was a very impressive show of athleticism and awareness.
With Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower in the lineup, the Patriots linebackers have often been referred to as "thumpers" against the run. That's sometimes seen as a nice way of saying they're big and slow.
At 250 pounds, though, Collins has both the size and speed to make an impact against the run. On the night, Collins finished with six tackles, two of them stuffed runs.
His stuff on Colts running back Trent Richardson has gained a lot of attention over the few days since the Patriots beat the Colts, and rightfully so.
On that play, Collins was supposed to be taken out by the left guard, who was pulling out to get a lead block on the 'backer in space. That block, in turn, was supposed to spring Richardson free.
Collins was tripped up, but instead of being taken out of the play, he simply rolled over the blocker and wrapped his arms around Richardson's ankles. Admittedly, Richardson might have gained big yards if he had hit the corner with conviction instead of hesitating and stutter-stepping behind the line of scrimmage.
The Broncos ran the ball 48 times in the previous meeting between the two teams, so if Collins is asked to put together another full-time effort (played 66 of 66 snaps against the Colts), his duties in run defense could be equally important to those duties in coverage and rushing the passer.
One Final Takeaway
Collins was showing flashes of this potential as early as the preseason. In fact, two of the biggest teaching points from his first preseason game came in exactly the same situations that he excelled on Sunday: rushing the passer and dropping into coverage.
As I discussed after the Patriots' first preseason game, against the Philadelphia Eagles, he was just inches away from making two big plays. He had a chance at a sack of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, but took a bad angle and overpursued. He nearly batted down a ball in coverage on tight end Zach Ertz, running a seam route, but instead he gave up the long gain.
Collins, it appears, has learned from his experience, and is ready to make those plays.
For his versatility and his athleticism, Collins is the Patriots ultimate X-factor. Now, they're just hoping that things come out in the positive when they solve for X on Sunday.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.