Last Monday, Cleveland Browns linebacker Jamie Collins, who arrived mid-season via a trade with the New England Patriots, signed a four-year extension with the team worth a total of $50 million, a deal that guarantees Collins $26 million. Collins' agreement to stay with the Browns coming off a 1-15 season is a big deal for a myriad of reasons. Collins is just 27 years old, and can be a focal point of the Browns defense for the foreseeable future. His resigning gives the Browns an image boost, as they made it known throughout the season that maintaining the former Pro Bowler was of the highest priority. But perhaps the simplest reason that locking down Collins' for four more years was such a coup? He's just really good.
Despite being named to his first Pro Bowl in 2015, criticism has hounded Collins ever since Patriots head coach Bill Belichick elected to jettison him to Cleveland. Former Patriots front office man and frequent mouthpiece for the franchise Michael Lombardi let loose on Collins after the trade, criticizing what he perceived as a lack of effort and a penchant for freelancing from Collins. But watching tape from his eight games with the Browns this season doesn't bear much of that out. In fact, Collins showed himself to be far and away the best player on the defensive side of the ball for the Browns, and while that might not be saying much on a team that was ranked 32nd in defense, Collins consistently graded out as one of the best OLB in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Here, we'll look at the things Collins does well, the ones he doesn't, and how it all fits in to the Browns defense in 2017.
Collins' athleticism leads to arguably his biggest strength: his versatility. Despite standing 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Collins is quick enough to stay with most tight ends and running backs in coverage, and can cover ground fast enough to be effective in zone defense. Both the Patriots and Browns did not hesistate to drop him back into coverage.
In the play above, Collins dropped back into zone coverage, read Andy Dalton's eyes and jumped Brandon LaFell's route, slamming him down for no gain. It's an example of both Collins' speed and instincts working in perfect harmony.
In just his second game, a nationally televised Thursday night bout against the Baltimore Ravens, Collins was brilliant in both the obvious plays and the subtle ones. On the Ravens' second drive, Flacco ran a play fake to running back Terrance West. Collins bit slightly on the fake, but recovered quick enough to backpedal into coverage. Finding himself without a coverage responsibility when West stayed in to block, Collins kept his eyes on Flacco, ran him down and ended up batting down Flacco's potential pass. Collins' patience and instincts were once again on full display.
Our final example of Collins' coverage skills comes in a late-season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Collins looked like his assignment was to rush while also paying attention to any quick routes. So when Ben Roethlisberger threw a quick screen to his running back Le'Veon Bell, Collins stopped on a dime and turned around to speed after Bell, eventually bringing him down after a modest gain and even punching the ball out of Bell's hands.
Playing the Run
Jamie Collins also displayed a deft ability to diagnose the gap a running back was looking to plow through and meeting him in it. Above, Collins mirrored New York Giants running back Paul Perkins as he looked for a hole, shuffling from the strong to the weak side of the formation and exploding through the gap to stop Perkins for a short gain.
In his very first game with the Browns, Collins again came from the opposite side of the formation to bring down Dallas Cowboys running back Alfred Morris, leaping over a potential block by Terrance Williams in the middle of his pursuit.
Rushing the Passer
He doesn't do it as often, but Collins can be successful when charged with rushing the quarterback. Here, he combines with Christian Kirksey on a "stunt" or "twist" blitz, where the two linebackers switch positions as they rush in an effort to confuse the defense, as they do to the Ravens above when Collins got to Joe Flacco untouched.
Collins can use his speed to beat an offensive lineman, too, as the above sack from 2015 shows us. Collins blitzed through the A gap, bounced off Buffalo's center and got in quarterback Tyrod Taylor's face before Taylor had any idea what was happening.
Finally, Collins can simply use his power to bully his way to the quarterback. In the clip above, he abuses Cincinnati Bengals center Russell Bodine, plowing him backwards until they topple into Andy Dalton for the sack.
Collins is a triple threat, allowing the Browns to use in against the run, in coverage or to rush the passer. That versatility is invaluable in Cleveland.
Covering Above Average Tight Ends
While we lauded Collins earlier for his ability to play zone and stay with most tight ends and running backs, he's still a linebacker, and his coverage abilities quickly lessens when he's forced to guard above average pass catchers.
Tyler Eifert gave Collins all sorts of trouble on multiple routes in their December matchup, including the one above when he hit Collins with a simple curl.
Buffalo Bills tight end Charles Clay did much of the same. Though Collins appears to be in zone coverage here, his instincts should have gotten him to Clay, who settled in the middle of the field, quicker to force an incompletion.
Collins also got badly beat on a simple out route by Antonio Gates during the Browns' lone win of the season. Collins and Gates line up on the inside of the formation to the left of your screen.
Sometimes Collins can be so hyped up to get to the quarterback or running back that he uses his speed and athleticism to his own detriment. This was on full display against the New York Giants, when Collins twice shot himself out of a cannon trying to get after Eli Manning, only to find himself speeding out of control, easily allowing running back Paul Perkins to blow him up with a block.
Jamie Collins should not be getting thrown around like a rag doll by the likes of Paul Perkins. Controlling his body better on the rush will help him immensely.
In watching all of Collins' games with the Browns, it was honestly hard to find too many egregious instances of the linebacker freelancing, the one critique that seems to continue to stick with him. But when Collins does choose to freelance, whether it's over-pursuit of the wrong player or leaving his assignment to jump a pass that never comes, it has its obvious consequences. Still, more times than not, Collins' instincts are correct, and if guessing wrong every once in a while is his biggest flaw, the Browns will happily live with it.
In the end, Collins is an incredibly talented linebacker with the type of versatility defensive coordinators dream of. His abilities combined with the hopeful infusion of talent to the Browns defense and aggressive style of new DC Gregg Williams should allow the Browns to do much more in year two than they ever did in 2016.