Collins leads Patriots' impressive defensive nucleus

When we think of the 2015 New England Patriots, we naturally envision Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the driving forces.

And why wouldn't we?

Belichick is the preeminent head coach of his generation and one of the dynamic forces in the evolution of 21st century football. As Joe Namath pointed out last February, no quarterback in NFL history has been better than Brady, who has led the Patriots to victory in 18 of his last 19 meaningful games.

That lasting Belichick-Brady hegemony in New England has overshadowed the youngest roster ever to win a Super Bowl.

While Brady's offense is pacing the NFL at 36.6 points per game, linebacker Jamie Collins is emerging as the face of a versatile, highly athletic young defense.

NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth revealed last Sunday that Colts offensive coaches game-planned for Collins more than any other player except for two-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

Broadcasting the Patriots' divisional round victory over the Ravens last January, Collinsworth asserted that the freakishly athletic Collins "can be as good a player as there is in this league."

Once described by Gregg Rosenthal as "a cornerback trapped in a 250-pound body," Collins is likely to join Green Bay's Clay Matthews as the inside linebackers on Around The NFL's mid-season All Pro team.

While Collins is emerging as one of the best defensive building blocks in the league, he's joined by nearly a dozen more talented young players on Belichick's defense.

Here's a look at that defensive nucleus:

Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard, pass rushers: Jones and Sheard have combined for 9.5 sacks, joining the ranks of Michael Bennett-Cliff Avril, Carlos Dunlap-Geno Atkins and Julius Peppers-Clay Matthews as the most disruptive pass-rushing tandems in the league. Sheard has been one of the best free-agent pickups this year.

Dont'a Hightower, linebacker: Much like Collins, Hightower is a versatile, do-everything linebacker capable of rushing the passer, stuffing the run and holding his own in coverage. While Collins is more athletic, Hightower is more physical, specializing in sifting through blockers to make stops near the line of scrimmage.

Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, cornerbacks: Butler is more than just a Super Bowl hero novelty act. Replacing Darrelle Revis as the No. 1 cover corner, Butler earned high praise from Belichick and Jets wideout Brandon Marshall this week. The starter opposite Butler, Ryan has recovered nicely this season after being benched in the second half of the Super Bowl.

Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, safeties: A converted cornerback, McCourty has been one of the NFL's premier all-around safeties for the past four years. Chung is playing better than ever since reviving his career with a return to New England last season. Harmon has taken over as the primary nickelback, playing nearly every snap in last week's victory over the Colts.

Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown, defensive tackles: Although the Pats are breaking in 2015 first-round pick Brown slowly, 2014 first-rounder Easley has flashed difference-making potential this season. Belichick has raved about Easley as an explosive and disruptive force on the interior, capable of bedeviling guards and centers with his improved technique and violent, quick-twitch athleticism.

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