Why Collins is on the list
Jamie Collins is a cornerback trapped in a 250-pound body. While most linebackers are forced into pass coverage duties, Collins looks at home on an island.
As a rookie, Collins played inside and outside linebacker. He lined up at defensive end occasionally to rush the passer, and could blitz up the middle. Moving forward is typical of a guy his size, but it's not typical to see the same player line up one-on-one outside the numbers against receivers, and win.
Bill Belichick has found a new sort of prototype. Nearly 30 years removed from establishing what NFL teams look for in a 3-4 linebacker, Collins is the right player for this era. Once a safety at Southern Mississippi, Collins can go entire games without going after a quarterback. (Week 16 against Baltimore was a great example; he shut down their tight ends on passing downs.)
"He can do five back-flips, front flips, whatever you want him to do," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said.
Collins would not be ranked in our Top 10 if not for his dominant playoff performance against the Colts. It was one of the most versatile single-game efforts by a defensive player all last season. In the second half alone, Collins forced a loss on a run play, sacked Luck to short circuit a third-quarter drive, then picked off Luck two drives later to seal the game. He handled Coby Fleener in man coverage often, a matchup the Colts tried to exploit without much success (Fleener's best plays came when Collins wasn't on him). Collins even lined up against T.Y. Hilton occasionally.
Belichick built his championship defenses in large part around his linebackers, but he hasn't had a player quite like Collins. It's disarming to see a player his size chasing down wide receivers from behind. The NFL wouldn't have known what to do with him 20 years ago.
Getting up to NFL speed was Collins' biggest challenge as a rookie. He barely played until Week 14, and suited up for fewer than 25 percent of the team's regular season snaps. He could occasionally get walled off in run support, but Collins showed surprising toughness when allowed to play every snap in the playoffs. He did a nice job shaking off blockers for tackles, and was excellent getting his hands on receivers near the line of scrimmage.
Collins' struggles to stay on the field should end this year with Spikes in Buffalo. While Dont'a Hightower and even Jerod Mayo could leave the field on passing downs, Collins should be a true three-down player. With a year to digest Belichick's program, Collins should be better equipped to line up at virtually any position whether the Patriots have three or four down linemen in the game.
Perhaps Collins' biggest strength could turn out to be an obstacle to stardom. It's sometimes hard to get noticed as a coverage linebacker, so he'll need Belichick to let him rush the passer plenty too. When asked to do so, Collins showed a promising speed rush against opposing left tackles.
Collins is the player that Adalius Thomas was supposed to be. If he were a baseball player, we'd talk about his five tools: Speed, strength, pass coverage, pass rush and run stopping. Belichick's defenses have tended to be more vanilla in recent years because of personnel. Now Belichick has Darrelle Revis and a Swiss Army knife asset like Collins in his pocket; it's time to get more creative again.
After seeing only 302 snaps last year, Collins should safely triple that number this year. Eight sacks and a lot of "Wow!" plays in pass coverage could get Collins mentioned for Pro Bowl consideration ahead of Mayo.