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What Kind of Player Are the Browns Getting in Jamie Collins?

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistNovember 2, 2016

New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) looks at his hands after dropping the ball against the Indianapolis Colts an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.  (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)
Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

During the week of the the NFL trade deadline, the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns came together to make one of the biggest in-season splash deals in recent memory. While it seems like the Browns flirt with sending off left tackle Joe Thomas for picks every year, they finally made a forward-thinking move by sending a 2017 third-round selection, likely a top-70 pick, for the opportunity to sign linebacker Jamie Collins to a long-term deal.

Collins has eight games left on his rookie contract, meaning he and the Browns will have some negotiating to do, but before that issue comes to a resolution, they must solve the puzzle many Cleveland fans are thinking: What exactly does Collins bring to the table?

The former Southern Mississippi Golden Eagle just turned 27 years old last month, meaning he likely has four or so years left in his prime, but what does that even mean?

To understand who Collins is now, you need to follow the full trajectory of his career from the prep level up. In Mississippi, Collins was a track star and high school quarterback who was graded as a 3-star prospect by Scout.com, with offers from SEC programs like Auburn and Mississippi.

Turning those major offers down, Collins signed with Southern Miss coming out of high school and played on all three levels of the defense—in the secondary, the linebacking unit and with his hand in the dirt—as an Adalius Thomas-like hybrid player. Per Scout's numbers, Collins was just a 210-pounder when he showed up to Hattiesburg, but by the time he participated at the NFL combine as a pass-rushing prospect, he was officially weighed in as a 250-pounder.

While in Indianapolis for the event, Collins posted a 41.5-inch vertical jump and a 139-inch broad jump, which, according to Mock Draftable's database, is good for the 96th and 100th percentile of outside linebackers, respectively, and 99th and 100th percentile of defensive ends.

To say the least, especially after cross-checking his college film, he was labeled as a "freak athlete." To put those numbers into perspective, since 2005, the only top-120 pass-rushing prospects who compare similarly to his jumps, relative to density, at the combine have been Mario Williams, who was drafted first overall in 2006, and Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who was selected in the first round last season.

Athletic measurements of that level at that size are so rare that many linked Dupree-Collins comparisons together in the 2015 draft cycle, like NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. Unlike Dupree, though, Collins was drafted in the second round of the 2013 draft to be an off-the-ball linebacker, not a pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker.

Despite his athleticism, 21 sacks and 45 tackles for a loss while bouncing around positions at the college level, Collins' role with the Patriots for three-and-a-half years was as an inside linebacker, mostly due to his ability to hang in coverage.

According to Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson, Collins has the second-best opposing passer rating when targeted in the air for an off-the-ball linebacker in 2016, finished fifth in that statistic in 2015 and fourth in 2014. His bread and butter was as a coverage linebacker, but relative to pass-rushers, they are paid significantly less.

This is one reason why many think that the Patriots traded him: He wasn't worth the money he could get on the open market, where some might see him as an outside linebacker, to play the role he filled in New England.

According to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Collins recently turned down an extension worth $11 million per year from the Patriots. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Collins and his agent Bus Cook—known best as the negotiator for Brett Favre, another Southern Miss product—want to sign a contract worth more than Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly's, the highest-paid true off-the-ball linebacker in the league: 

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

#Browns will look to pay LB Jamie Collins & my understanding is he’s looking to eclipse Luke Kuechly ($12M per). Views himself as a hybrid.

ESPN's Adam Schefter went on the record stating that Collins asked for "Von Miller money."

Last September, Kuechly signed a contract worth $61.8 million. This July, Miller signed a contract worth $114.5 million. The difference in guaranteed money between those two contracts alone eclipses $35 million.

That's where the problem lays. Based on Rapoport's report that Cleveland was willing to sell off a pair of cornerbacks in Joe Haden and Tramon Williams before the deadline, it seems unlikely that the 0-8 team is simply sending off draft picks for a half-year rental.

This is the same Browns organization that traded back several times to acquire 14 selections in the 2016 draft and could have as many as four top-50 picks in the 2017 draft. They have thought long-term with every move they have made in their first year under new management, but where Collins fits long-term isn't clear, at least based on the numbers being thrown around by some of the most trusted reporters the NFL has to offer.

Through all of the confusion surrounding the trade, one of the voices that could lead fans and the media in a direction of coherence is Michael Lombardi, who might be the most qualified person to speak on the Collins trade, as he worked in Cleveland as the team's general manager during the 2013 season and with the Patriots in 2014 and 2015, when Collins was on the team.

UNDISPUTED @undisputed

.@mlombardifoxtv on Patriots trading Jamie Collins: This is about performance, not pettiness. https://t.co/58gFI7eAxH

On Fox Sports' Undisputed, Lombardi told Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe and Joy Taylor that New England didn't give him a fair shot to be an edge defender, which in a 3-4 defense would be an outside linebacker, a pass-rushing position like he played at the finality of his college career.

"I think trying to develop Jamie as a pure coverage wasn't fair to Jamie," Lombardi said. "I think Jamie would have been a better rusher."

Taking into account Collins' college resume as a pass-rusher, the rumors of a megadeal and the fact that Cleveland was still willing to trade for him knowing he was due for said deal, the most logical conclusion that one can come up with is that they'll flirt with playing him as an edge defender if they aren't using him as a stunt-heavy blitzing inside linebacker, both of which are essentially pass-rushers.

Be it NBC Sports' Josh Norris or PhiladelphiaEagles.com's Fran Duffy, Collins' ability to shoot gaps, like a line-of-scrimmage defender, has been highlighted for years. The problem is if you're going to fully utilize sending a hybrid linebacker from all angles on blitzes, like the Minnesota Vikings do with Anthony Barr, you need to commit to that style of play, and the Patriots clearly weren't after four years.

All indications would suggest that the Browns are. Per Pro Football Focus, the moment Collins steps on the field, he's going to be the best Cleveland defender on the turf. According to Spotrac, the linebacker is the third-best player slated to hit the open market next season:

Spotrac @spotrac

Jamie Collins is currently #3 on our Top 2017 Free Agents list, holding a calculated market value of nearly $11M/yr. https://t.co/qgbm6ickBS

If the Browns can go all out on building around Collins as a penetrating player, not one who drops back into coverage on his most impactful plays on a week-to-week basis, that third-round pick of opportunity cost may look like nothing compared to the value they can bring in for the next four to six years.

Cleveland employs Paul DePodesta, known best for his contributions to sabermetrics in baseball, as their chief strategy officer. Based on the last decade of combine data, you can make the case from a statistical standpoint that athletic pass-rushers are being undervalued at the NFL level.

And based on a few of the Browns' moves this season, even before trading for Collins, it would seem like DePodesta is aware of this trend. Football Outsiders runs a statistic around draft season called SackSEER, which takes into account athleticism, production and health at the college level to spit out a risk analysis on individual pass-rushing prospects.

Their top combine scorer of the 2016 draft class was Emmanuel Ogbah, who the Browns drafted in the second round, the second pick of the DePodesta era. Ogbah ranks fourth in sacks in the rookie class with three and also leads Cleveland with that number.

The Browns also claimed Tyrone Holmes, an athletic sixth-round pick from the Jacksonville Jaguars, after he didn't make it through final cuts this offseason. While Holmes didn't qualify for SackSEER because he wasn't invited for the combine, he led Division I football with 18 sacks at Montana in 2015 and posted a pro day workout with numbers that led Minnesota Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson to compare him to Pro Bowler Everson Griffen, another insanely athletic former Day 3 selection.

The way the cards are aligning, especially considering the fact that Cleveland doesn't have a sack artist who ranks among the top 44 in the NFL, it's safe to assume that Collins should be spending more time in offenses' backfields with the Browns than he did with the Patriots.

One name you will hear a lot about regarding Collins' fit in Cleveland will be Daryl Washington, a linebacker who played for the Arizona Cardinals at a high level but derailed his career due to off-field issues. Under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Washington was able to post nine sacks as an off-the-ball linebacker in 2012.

No off-the-ball linebacker has been able to hit that mark since Washington's Pro Bowl season, due to the lack of athletes at inside linebacker compared to outside linebacker and defensive coordinators' lack of willingness to play that style of football. Luckily for Collins and the Browns, Horton is in his first year as Cleveland's defensive coordinator.

Browns fans should expect something special, a defense built around the penetrating ability of a linebacker with athletic potential that can't be matched around the league. They're taking one step toward a Minnesota-like defense during their rebuild, and at the cost of a mid-Day 2 selection, there's plenty of reward to outweigh the risk.

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