FOXBOROUGH — Try to pick a highlight from Jamie Collins’s first regular season with the Patriots. It isn’t easy.
There were the 10 tackles he made against the Broncos, and eight against the Browns. And he did start the last eight games after Jerod Mayo went down, so that’s something.
Otherwise, his first regular season was mostly a dud. Collins was the team’s highest draft pick in 2013 — 52d overall in the second round, after the Patriots traded out of the first round — but he didn’t have a single sack, interception, or high-impact play the entire regular season. Collins finished with 43 tackles and four passes defended in 16 games, and that’s about it. He only played in 25 percent of snaps last year — or about 100 snaps fewer than Mayo, who played in 10 fewer games.
Then, in one jaw-dropping 60-minute performance, Collins showed why the Patriots invested in him, and why they’re counting on him to be a major player in 2014.
Collins did it all in the divisional round playoff win over the Colts in January. He blasted through running back Donald Brown en route to a sack of Andrew Luck, later dropped 20 yards into coverage to intercept Luck, and finished with two tackles for losses, three quarterback hits, six tackles, and a pass defended.
His most impressive play didn’t jump off the stat sheet. He was chopped down by right guard Hugh Thornton on a running play, but as Collins spun to the ground, he whipped Trent Richardson with his left arm and cut the running back down for a loss.
The performance encapsulated what makes Collins such an intriguing prospect. A former quarterback, safety, and defensive end who finally settled at linebacker, the 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound Collins is the ultimate three-down player in today’s NFL. Collins has the skills to cover athletic tight ends, the speed to track down running backs behind the line of scrimmage, and the strength to bullrush his way to the quarterback.
In short, he’s exactly the type of player Bill Belichick covets — versatile enough to play almost anywhere in the defense, with freakish athleticism.
“He can do five back flips, front flips, whatever you want him to do,” fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “Very versatile athlete. If you ask him to go guard a receiver, he’s more than happy to go and do it. There’s nothing he’s going to back down from.”
And it’s scary to think what Collins can do in his second season with the Patriots, now that he’s adjusted to the speed of the NFL and knows the playbook. His neck is a little bit thicker this spring, after working for a year with the Patriots’ strength and conditioning staff, and he’s becoming more vocal in the meeting room and locker room.
Collins is expected to start alongside Mayo and Hightower this season, and while the latter two will probably come off the field in obvious passing situations given their struggles in coverage, Collins should play in most of the sub packages.
He’s so versatile he may become one of those never-comes-off-the-field defenders like Devin McCourty, Darrelle Revis, and Chandler Jones.
“Whatever it is, I’m here to do my job,” Collins said in perfect Patriot prose after Thursday’s organized team activity, the ninth of 10 this offseason.
Collins won’t say it, but his teammates notice how much more fluid and natural he looks during these practices.
“There’s always a huge difference in that second year in just having that experience and that confidence,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “It’s not easy as a rookie. You’re going through a long year there with the [scouting] combine and get drafted, then come in and learn the playbook.
“You don’t get much time off. That second year, you kind of have been there, done that, and now it’s just go out there and play ball.”
“He definitely has all the tools to do anything he wants in this league. He just has to go out there and do it.”
Hightower, entering his third season, said he saw a lot of intelligence and maturity from Collins last year, even when he was struggling to get on the field early on.
“Him coming in and learning the way he did his first year, you couldn’t tell he wasn’t a three- or four-year player,” Hightower said. “He was a lot more mature in his first year than some people are in their third year.”
Collins said he expects more out of himself this year, but is trying to remain humble about his expectations for this season.
“I’m just trying to pick up where I left off from. Always try to get better every day,” he said. “I know a lot more, playing faster. Last year I had to learn everything, but now I know most of it. But you know, there’s always more room for improvement.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.