Jamie Collins evolving into star for Patriots

When the New England Patriots traded up and selected Jamie Collins 52nd overall in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, they were hoping that he would develop into a solid pass rusher off the edge in their 3-4 scheme.

What nobody truly anticipated was that Collins would emerge as their most versatile defender, best coverage linebacker, play caller and leading tackler in just his second season.

During the 2013-14 postseason, NFL analysts were stunned when they saw No. 91 lined up outside as a corner in man-to-man coverage. But if they did a little research on Collins’ football journey, they would not be as surprised.

The McCall Creek, Mississippi native was six feet, three inches and just 210 pounds when he first arrived at Southern Miss. A three star recruit, according to Rivals, Collins was listed as an athlete without a true position.

Collins started off at USM as a safety, but as his frame continued to fill out, the coaching staff decided to move him to linebacker and eventually defensive end. His collegiate career was impressive to say the least. He racked up 314 tackles, 21 sacks, three interceptions and three touchdowns donning the black and gold.

“Jamie’s a smart kid. He’s a player that had a lot of experience, just not at the same position,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “He started off as a quarterback in high school, went to Southern Miss as a safety, and 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.

“I would say looking at him coming out of college, you wouldn’t say that he was overly proficient in any of those areas, 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 progressed a lot, but only played one year.’

With his experience as a defensive back, Collins has always possessed the ability to cover and his athleticism wowed scouts at the 2013 NFL Draft Combine.

He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds, 3-cone drill in 7.1 seconds, and 60-yard shuttle in 11.55 seconds while recording a 41.5 inch vertical leap and a 139 inch broad jump. Each one of those marks topped all other linebackers that attended the combine in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Despite putting up monster numbers in college and at the combine, many scouts viewed him as a project with a 4th round grade. NFL.com gave him a prospect grade of 68.8, which according to the site, players with a grade in the range of 50-69 are draftable prospects and “a prospect with the ability to make team as a backup/role player.”

Boy were they wrong. After a knee injury ended Jerod Mayo’s season, the Patriots were extremely thin at inside linebacker, considering they had already lost Brandon Spikes to free agency in the offseason. After Mayo’s injury, the Patriots traded for linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas, hoping to help soften the blow of losing the All-Pro linebacker.

However, in an experimental move, Belichick decided to test Collins out on the inside when Mayo went down and he has been the starter there ever since. Not only has he been the starter, he has easily become one of the better defensive players in the league and has excelled in every aspect.

After only recording 43 tackles, zero sacks or interceptions in his rookie year, Collins’ production has gone through the roof. During the regular season, he recorded 116 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles.

What is even more impressive is what he has shown as a pass rusher from the inside after only ever having experience as an outside rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, Collins has got pressure on the quarterback 26 times out of just 81 pass rushes during the regular season, the highest success rate of any inside linebacker in the NFL.

In most cases in today’s NFL, being as versatile as Collins is can sometimes be a detriment to a player’s production because they never get to hone in on one specific ability. But Collins’ versatility is exactly what has made him into a star at the next level.

“He can go from anywhere, rushing the passer to playing in the deep part of the field,” Belichick said. “He’s a versatile player that can handle a lot of different responsibilities and assignments and the communication that goes with that.”

Now listed at 250 pounds, Collins has become a physical force the Patriots and could be the reason the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl. With only Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts standing in the Patriots’ way of the Super Bowl, the Patriots will need Collins to excel in coverage and keep Luck from doing damage with his legs as Luck finished third in the league in passing yards and sixth in the league in rushing yards among quarterbacks.

Collins has come an extremely long way since arriving at Southern Miss as a safety and is now one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL and just one game away from the Super Bowl.