FOXBOROUGH — Jamie Collins is back with the Patriots after spending 2½ years in Cleveland, a.k.a. Football No Man’s Land. And he has been reminding everyone that he is still a freakish athlete and, as Bill Belichick put it, “a very special player.”
The Patriots unceremoniously traded Collins at the deadline in 2016, and let the Browns pay him a massive contract as a free agent. Two underwhelming seasons later, Collins is back with the Patriots on a one-year “prove-it” contract that will pay him $3 million-$5 million based on incentives.
And, boy, is he proving it.
Collins has been a superstar through four games, playing like the uber-athletic, three-down linebacker the Patriots envisioned when they drafted him in the second round in 2013.
He leads the team in sacks (3.5), tackles (23), quarterback hits (5), and tackles for losses (6), and is second in interceptions (3) and passes defended (4).
The way Collins is filling up the stat sheet could have him in the running for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
“He leaves for a couple years, comes back, and it’s the same Jamie,” safety Devin McCourty said. “We didn’t lose sync with him.”
And Collins has been a dependable leader for the NFL’s No. 1 defense. He has played the most snaps of any Patriots front-seven defender (205). He plays on four of six special teams units (both punt and field goal teams). And when Dont’a Hightower missed last week’s game with a shoulder injury, Collins wore the microphone in his helmet and took over play-calling duties.
“Whatever we’ve asked him to, he’s done a great job with it,” Belichick said.
Belichick has a knack for bringing players back and getting more out of them the second time around. The most noteworthy example is Patrick Chung, who struggled in his first stint with the Patriots, struggled for a year in Philadelphia, then came back to Foxborough and has been one of the defense’s most valuable players for the last six years.
Belichick learned in Chung’s first stint that he struggled to play in space when he was in zone coverage, and in the second go-round Belichick has used him only as an in-the-box run defender, and in man coverage.
The same appears to be happening with Collins. In his first iteration with the Patriots, he was mostly an inside linebacker who would cover running backs out of the backfield. This year, the Patriots are often using him as a strong-side outside linebacker on early downs, and kicking him inside on obvious passing downs.
“It’s interesting to see him kind of play a different spot and still be as productive as he is,” Jets coach Adam Gase said. “It looks like that’s the right place for him. He plays really well in Coach Belichick’s system. His versatility, his flexibility, his knowledge of what they do is impressive, and it’s obvious the guy’s a playmaker.”
In run defense, Collins is now taking on tight ends and offensive tackles instead of roaming sideline-to-sideline. Against the Jets, he showed a terrific ability to set the edge.
On one play, he demolished tight end Daniel Brown, then dragged down Le’Veon Bell for no gain. On another, he did a perfect job of setting the edge, not letting Ty Montgomery get outside, fighting off the tackle, and dropping Montgomery for a 2-yard loss.
Against the Dolphins, 10 defenders and a cameraman were fooled by a misdirection play, but not Collins, who stuck to his assignment, sniffed out the play, and planted Jakeem Grant for a 4-yard loss.
“He’s definitely playing the run well,” linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said. “His first stint here, he was more in the bubble, and now he’s more on the edge on the early downs. But he’s doing a good job wherever we ask him to play.”
Another big change for Collins is that he is mostly being used in zone coverage, not man-to-man. One of the lasting images of Collins’s first stint with the Patriots was him getting burned on a wheel route by Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch late in Super Bowl XLIX.
But the Patriots aren’t putting Collins in one-on-one coverage much this season, instead letting him sit back in zone coverage and pounce on receivers after the catch, as he did on Cole Beasley’s modest 7-yard reception last Sunday.
Of course, the Patriots are still unleashing Collins as a pass rusher, and he is creating havoc right up the middle. Against the Dolphins, Collins powered through a center-guard double-team to sack Ryan Fitzpatrick. Against the Jets, he screamed through the middle like a missile, missed Luke Falk on his first attempt, then got him from behind.
And though Collins is about to turn 30, and has seven seasons of wear and tear, he still displays freakish speed and athletic ability. He showed impressive quickness and change-of-direction ability on his sack of Josh Allen, one of the NFL’s best running quarterbacks. Collins shadowed Allen as he zig-zagged across the field, then fought through an offensive tackle to bring him down for a loss of 7 yards.
Also against Buffalo, Collins raced 30 yards downfield to bring down Frank Gore from behind. Against Pittsburgh, Collins turned on the afterburners to cut down James Conner just short of the goal line and preserve the shutout.
His most impressive play of the season doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. In the final seconds of the second quarter in Buffalo, Collins took a standing leap over the offensive line and came this close to blocking Stephen Hauschka’s 49-yard field goal attempt. The kick did go wide left, and it’s possible that Collins forced it off course.
In short, Collins still has plenty of good football left, and is still one of the best athletes on the field. And the Patriots seem to have figured out how to best utilize him this time around.
“It’s really exciting to have that type of player in your system and to have players he can work with,” Belichick said. “He’s got the physical skills to play at the end of the line and off the line, to blitz, to play in coverage, play against the run and play against the pass.
“From first down to third down, to playing on the punt team, he’s added a lot to us.”