What Jamie Collins has done in his second NFL season is what the New England Patriots hoped he’d do.
A little bit of everything.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker amassed 116 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions over the course of 15 starts during the regular season. He chased running backs in the flats, quarterbacks through the A-gaps, and tight ends in the seam. And he did what many in the Patriots organization believed he could do upon selecting him No. 52 overall in the 2013 draft.
Collins’ athleticism is only part of the reason why.
“Jamie, he’s a smart kid,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his press conference Wednesday. “He’s another player that had a lot of experience, just not at the same position. He started off as a quarterback in high school, went to Southern Miss as a safety, then they moved him to inside linebacker, then he played outside linebacker in a 3-4, then his senior year he played defensive end in a 4-3 and was rarely in coverage.”
The 25-year-old’s experience at multiple levels of the field has translated in a multiple Patriots defense.
It just took time. But that clock began to tick long before Collins recorded his first NFL sack on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the divisional round of the 2013 playoffs, and long before he recorded 43 tackles and four pass deflections over 16 games and eight starts during his rookie regular season.
His acclimation began to show its flashes in Hattiesburg, Miss., where Collins tallied 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a senior on an 0-12 football team.
“Yeah, I would say looking at him coming out of college you wouldn’t say that he was overly proficient in any of those areas,” Belichick said. “But I think you could see a lot of improvement in his play over the course of the year, like as a pass rusher as a defensive end, he improved a lot his senior year. But he only played it one year. Same thing as an inside linebacker, same thing as an outside linebacker. Really even watching him play safety a little bit as a freshman – he was a quarterback in high school.”
Collins’ role over his four seasons at Southern Mississippi was fluid. Schemes shifted, and so did coaches, but he made the most of the shift as well.
He has continued to.
“Of course, as athletic and as a talented as he is, he probably could play all of those positions now to tell you the truth, even at this level,” Belichick added. “I’m sure he was an easy guy to move depending on what they felt like the requirements were for their team and what other players they had. But he’s certainly grown in these two years and become very – again, he’s a smart player.”
This season, the second-year Patriots linebacker has stepped in to wear the green dot in the injury absences of fellow linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower. From there, he’s stepped in to blitz, to drop back in the hole of zone coverage, and to drop ball-carriers in the backfield.
“He’s handled all the communication things that we’ve asked him to do. He’s got a lot of different assignments. He can go from anywhere from rushing the passer to playing in the deep part of the field,” Belichick noted. “He’s a versatile player that can handle a lot of different responsibilities and assignments and the communication that goes with that.”
The way Collins has handled assignments has kept him on the field. He’s played the fourth-most snaps of any player on New England’s defense. And he’s graded out as the third-best inside linebacker in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, behind only Hightower and the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly.
He’s proven to be rare along the way.
“Look, Jamie Collinses don’t – it’s not like there’s two or three dozen of them in the draft every year,” Belichick added. “We’re lucky to have one. Was Lawrence Taylor a prototype outside linebacker? Where’s the next Lawrence Taylor? Those guys don’t grow on trees.”