Many football purists may pine for the days of Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis or Mike Singletary, but the game has moved on from that paradigm of impact defensive players. Not to say that those players wouldn't still be All-Pros—of course they would! Rather, the way offenses attack defenses these days changes the type of linebacker teams are looking for out of the college ranks.
Note: We're not talking about one-dimensional pass-rushers here. In a way, that position has become a hybrid that is hardly even described with the word "linebacker" anymore. No, this is about the next in a long line of do-it-all/traditional linebackers who can effect the game in any number of ways.
We've already witnessed quite the spate of this new breed of linebacker entering the league. From the Carolina Panthers' tackle machine Luke Kuechly to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' extremely active Lavonte David (a favorite of B/R's Matt Bowen) and the Arizona Cardinals' talented but troubled Daryl Washington, there are plenty of guys who can lay claim to being one of the best young linebackers in the league.
Arguments could be made, of course, for a rookie like C.J. Mosley of the Baltimore Ravens or another second-year player like the Oakland Raiders' Sio Moore, but all the signs point to Jamie Collins being the next young linebacker to become a household name.
It's All About the Measurables...and Collins Has Them in Spades
There isn't a lot of room left in the NFL for football players who aren't great athletes.
Whereas "workout warrior" used to be almost entirely a pejorative, it doesn't have nearly the same negative connotation as in the past. Maybe we'll utter Mike Mamula's name every draft season like the lamest Beetlejuice sequel ever, but teams are looking for height/weight/speed/athleticism numbers like never before.
Take a look around the league's best offenses.
Receivers who push 6'4" or 6'5" yet still run like they're trying out for the next Summer Olympics dot the landscape. These guys can't be pressed, nor can they be played off of. They win vertically down the field and in the air, catching the ball at its highest point—often in the back of the end zone.
If the receivers don't beat you, the tight ends will. Nowadays, tight ends aren't much different from their split-out brethren. Just ask Jimmy Graham, who is currently performing his own Shakespearian "What's in a name?" scene with the New Orleans Saints. These guys treat defensive seams like a fat guy doing squats in dress pants—sheer destruction.
Throw in the preponderance of running backs disguised as slot receivers or slot receivers disguised as running backs, the utter inability for most teams to run with anything less than three or four receivers in formation and the ever-evolving nature of professional linemen who are running seconds faster than their predecessors.
Add it all up and what do you have?
You have a game where all the grit, determination, football IQ and instincts don't amount to a hill of beans for a linebacker if he's smaller, weaker and slower than just about every player on the offensive side of the ball.
The game used to have some room for try-hard types in the middle of the defense.
This doesn't mean those above traits are without a place in the league today—certainly not! All of the intangibles we think of when it comes to great linebackers are still in play today and still very much important. However, the NFL of 2014 is no place for mediocre athletes at any position (well, maybe punter...sorry Rich Eisen), no matter how much "it" they might have.
All that being said, guess what I'm about to tell you about Jamie Collins. Rather than state the obvious, let's just have a look at his combine numbers.
|Jamie Collins vs. Other Young NFL Linebackers|
|40-Yard Dash||Vertical||Broad Jump||3-Cone||60-Yard Shuffle|
There's little to dislike about Collins as a physical specimen. He's big at a listed 6'3", 250 pounds and looks bulked up enough to put a hand down on the line if a coach really wanted him to. The lateral athleticism is there to move from sideline to sideline with ease, while his linear speed is enough to win matchups with most tight ends in the league.
Doug Kyed sang Collins' praises for NESN earlier this week, handing him the "Workout Warrior" superlative for the Patriots' offseason:
It appeared that all of the Patriots’ second-year players spent time in the weight room, but linebacker Jamie Collins looked the most bulked up. Collins still moved like a linebacker, but the second-year pro looked like a defensive lineman on the field. Collins looked undersized for a Patriots linebacker last season, but now he looks in place next to fellow mega-linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
With that kind of size and athleticism, Collins is going to create some havoc in the AFC East this season.
Collins Can Do Anything the Patriots Need Him to, But He Won't Have to Do it Alone
In my predraft work on Collins last spring, one of my favorite things about him was how well-rounded he was as a prospect. On the top of my scouting sheet in big all-caps, I wrote: "CAN DO IT ALL."
Well, at the NFL level, that's hardly true for anyone these days.
Sure, a top prospect may have the ability to do anything, but "everything" is an entirely different matter. The game has become more specialized, and the latitude for one singular impact player to change the game is dying down while the importance of depth, sub-packages and rotations is at an all-time high.
I don't think anyone expected a prospect like Collins to really "do it all," but the fact that he can speaks not only to his well-rounded nature but also to the fluidity of the New England defense. Bill Belichick—the NFL's closest thing to a bonafide X's and O's rain man—doesn't paint himself into the corner of easily defined schemes. Depending on the matchup, Collins can find himself in any number of positions and still succeed.
Take a look at BJ Kissel's scouting report on Collins, with this under "tools":
Collins has the physical tools to be a starting outside linebacker in the NFL. At 6'3", 250 pounds, he possesses the speed and agility to cover backs and tight ends. He's got a long, lean frame that you normally associate with rush linebackers in the NFL. He's a converted safety, so he's used to being out in space, although he wasn't asked to drop in coverage often last season.
Collins is solid at the point of contact and uses his frame well in driving through ball-carriers inside the box or out on the edge.
That's just about everything you can ask out of a guy, right?
Collins dropped a bit to the second round because he wasn't the best craftsman; even with all of those tools, playing at Southern Miss isn't exactly the SEC-like competition most teams want to see their draft picks face.
The drop may have also corresponded with that specialization of the NFL mentioned earlier. A player who is considered a "Jack of all trades but a master of none" may not be valued as highly as someone who brings one elite talent to the table.
The Patriots, however, have need of a man with such skills.
When the Patriots line up in a base 3-4 front, Collins is right at home as an outside linebacker. Then again, with one look at their roster, it's clear they have lots of pass-rushers in that same boat. So, in a pass-rushing situation, where someone like Chandler Jones or Will Smith is more appropriate at 3-4 outside linebacker, Collins can easily slide inside.
In a 4-3 front, Collins can play any of the three linebacker positions in a pinch. With his natural pass-rushing ability and coverage skills, strong-side linebacker is a natural fit in many ways (and likely why he bulked up from his weak-side linebacker size of last season), but his chase-and-tackle expertise makes him a plus WLB as well. On the Patriots, with Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower, that's probably where he spends most of his time.
Base defenses aren't the totality of NFL life anymore, though. Teams often find themselves in nickel and dime packages just as much as their "normal" fronts, and Collins' all-around game gives the Patriots a linebacker who can stick around in nickel packages without being deficient against the run or the pass.
The story that is being woven here may not be that Collins will be the best linebacker on the Patriots next season, but that he may be the most integral. If Collins ever comes off the field, it won't be because the Patriots found themselves in a situation where his skill set didn't fit.
[The Patriots have] all but handed Collins a starting position and furthermore are banking on him quickly developing into a rarity in today's pass-happy NFL: the three-down linebacker, a player equally adept at stuffing the run, rushing the passer and dropping into coverage.
That's a pretty unique position for such a lightly regarded second-round pick to find himself in heading into his second year—especially on a perennial playoff contender—but the Patriots were comfortable enough with Collins to let Brandon Spikes walk in free agency.
Elsewhere on that defense, though, the improvements have come fast and furious.
They've brought in the aforementioned Will Smith at defensive end/outside linebacker and look forward to having tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly healthy this season to occupy blockers next to him. They'll rotate with draft pick Dominique Easley, who may have been one of the steals of the offseason.
On the back end of the defense, Brandon Browner and Patrick Chung are solid additions, but the big story is obviously Darrelle Revis, who—believe it or not—is still one of the top corners in all of football—I even explained as much here.
If Collins were in a different situation, I wouldn't predict a "breakout" season for him. A lesser team with lesser defensive components around him would likely mean a season spent in obscurity no matter how well he played.
Instead, on this Patriots team with a vastly improved defense, Collins should shine.
Collins Has Already Taken the Next Step, Now It's Time for the Spotlight
This isn't a prediction that Collins will get better. He's already there.
Every offseason, the media occupies its time with predictions of which players will "take the next step" and which ones will "fall off the map." It's only natural, as many of those predictions go on to come true, and the fact that some players will fall into one of those two camps is a 100 percent certainty. It's the onward marching nature of the NFL...never stopping, never waiting.
This isn't that, though. Collins already took that next step last season; a bunch of us missed it, though.
Last season, Pro Football Focus listed Collins as the ninth-best player on the defense (paid link). His highest marks were in pass rushing, which is ironic because it's probably where he was most raw coming out of college.
Let's dig a little deeper, though, and go game by game.
Collins played sparingly over the first part of the season, failing to crack the linebacker rotation and spending most of his time on special teams. That changed, to an extent, in Week 6 when Mayo went down with a season-ending injury and Collins started in Weeks 7 and 8. However, he only played 40 snaps combined in those two games, often being the first player taken off the field.
For those scoring at home, that's the opposite of the picture we've been painting.
Hold fast, the story's about to take a turn.
In Week 14, the Patriots hosted Cleveland, which is as good a time as any to get the rookie some burn. Collins played 55 snaps that day, more than he'd played in any game up to that point. He acquitted himself well, with five tackles and a batted pass.
It's not game-breaking stuff, but it's solid play when his team asked him to step up.
Then the playoffs came.
Against Indianapolis in the divisional round, Collins played every single snap. He collected six tackles, a QB hurry, an interception and a sack. He allowed two receptions (both to tight end Coby Fleener) and otherwise locked down his area of the field in coverage.
The next week, against Denver, Collins played a year-high 73 snaps (out of 76 total defensive snaps for his team) and was one of the lone bright spots in a game that didn't exactly go well for the Patriots.
Why were the Patriots so willing to hand Collins a spot in the starting lineup? It was already his!
The reason it's so easy to predict Collins as the next big breakout linebacker is that all the evidence is already there, we just have to take notice.