Entering his fourth year, Collins has made marked improvements each season in the NFL. He has become exactly the player the Patriots envisioned when they drafted him in 2013.
We knew he was a physical specimen even before he played a single down in the NFL. He created waves at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine when he put up a 41.5-inch vertical jump, a 139-inch broad jump, a 4.64-second 40-yard dash and a 7.1-second three-cone drill.
When his career began, he had a hard time getting onto the field. At first, his athleticism appeared to be his downfall. He would sometimes run himself out of a play by overpursuing; he could be in position, but would get caught looking the wrong direction in pass coverage; and he sometimes failed to wrap up a quarterback on a would-be sack.
But as Collins has gained NFL experience, he has blended his tremendous athleticism with a more disciplined style of play that has made him a playmaker. He has even begun wearing the green-dot helmet in a true show of his understanding of the Patriots defense and his ability to be a mental, vocal and physical leader of the defense.
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Make no mistake, Dont'a Hightower is right up there with his teammate and fellow linebacker Collins in the hierarchy of the most important upcoming free agents.
At 6'3" and 265 pounds, Hightower is vital in run defense, as evidenced by the Patriots' Week 12 loss to the Denver Broncos in 2015, when they allowed 15 rush attempts for 43 yards before Hightower exited with an injury and 17 attempts for 136 yards and three touchdowns after the injury.
Hightower, much like Collins, has improved each year in the NFL. He took over the green-dot helmet from Jerod Mayo when the now-retired veteran suffered the first of two season-ending injuries in 2013. Hightower has also improved in coverage.
The two linebackers also aren't separated much by age, as Collins is roughly six months Hightower's elder.
In fact, there isn't much that sets them apart at all. Hightower has a checkered injury history, having only played a full 16-game slate one time in his four-year career. Collins, on the other hand, has only missed one game to injury (2014), despite missing several games to an undisclosed illness in 2015.
Collins also has the distinction of being one of the most versatile linebackers in the NFL.
As the Patriots incorporate different looks on defense, Collins is able to play multiple roles in any of the defensive packages the Patriots employ. That's the benefit of his experience at all three levels of the defense as a defensive end, linebacker and safety at different points in his collegiate career.
Of course, it would be ideal for the Patriots to re-sign both of their key free agents. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald outlined a way the Patriots could have held onto Collins, Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones. Now that Jones has been traded to the Arizona Cardinals, you could just as easily swap Jones' name with any of the other high-profile 2017 free agents on the Patriots roster.
It also makes sense for the Patriots to wait on an extension for Collins. After all, the fourth-year linebacker is set to count for $1.196 million against the salary cap, according to Over The Cap. The Patriots could re-up Collins' deal for beyond 2016, keeping his low 2016 cap hit intact. But they also have the cap room to push some of that money onto his 2016 number to help spread the money a bit more.
There's even the possibility that, because of his low 2016 cap number, the Patriots could be targeting the franchise tag in 2017. Add $14.1 million (the 2016 franchise tag number for linebackers) to his 2016 cap hit, and the Patriots would get Collins for two years at $15.3 million. That's a steal for one of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL.
The tag would soak up a lot of money in 2017, though, so it is clearly not the preferred option—especially given the fact that the Patriots will also have to make decisions on Hightower, cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich, safety Duron Harmon and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Those players are all important, but Collins is the prototype linebacker that teams want on their defense in the current climate of the NFL. He is a matchup piece who can rush the passer, stuff the run and play tight coverage. Other teams will covet that kind of versatility, and the Patriots can't allow Collins to get close to free agency, where he will get a whiff of the massive amounts of money he could get elsewhere.