While the casual fans are wondering what players like Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork think about the Aaron Hernandez situation, the diehards are asking questions like, “What role will Jamie Collins play in training camp?” and “Which two tight ends will emerge in Rob Gronkowski‘s absence?”
That first question bears discussing. Collins filled two roles at Southern Miss, which conveniently were the two areas where the Patriots needed the most help in 2012. Collins covered tight ends and running backs out of the backfield (he was a safety during the first half of his college career) and served as an edge rusher, racking up 10 sacks his senior year. The Patriots will likely have to pick one role for Collins his rookie year so the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder won’t have too much on his plate. Regardless, it appears Collins will be spending most of his time in on third down, sub packages and obvious passing situations.
Jerod Mayo was a constant in the Patriots’ nickel package, but the other linebacker position in the sub package was split pretty evenly between Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes. If Collins is expected to cover tight ends and running backs, he could take on a majority of the snaps as the second linebacker in the nickel.
There are advantages and disadvantages to that idea. Collins should be better in coverage than Hightower and Spikes, but he’s not as good of an overall player yet. Hightower and Spikes are very adept at stopping the run and blitzing up the middle. If Collins was in that linebacker role, the opposing team may try to exploit the Patriots by running the ball. Sticking Collins in at linebacker also just gives Spikes and Hightower less snaps in general, and those are two very good players. The Patriots used a first-round pick on Hightower just one year ago, so it’s doubtful they would immediately take away half his snaps.
The more likely scenario is Collins starts his NFL career as a pass-rush specialist. The Patriots need a third rusher behind Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and Collins has the size and athleticism for the role.
It would be unfair to compare Collins to Aldon Smith or Bruce Irvin, since both players were first-round picks, but the two NFC East defenders had successful rookie seasons while they were still raw as pass rushers. Both players also only played in sub packages and were helped out greatly by the defenders around them.
Collins could be put in a great scenario serving a similar role, running stunts and flying around the edge while guys like Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Ninkovich and Jones are around him. In that case, Collins would rotate in with Jones and Ninkovich, giving those players more rest. Collins’ role would be similar to Mark Anderson‘s in 2011. The Patriots didn’t have a player like that in 2012.
A third possibility is if the Patriots go to more 3-4 looks. The 3-4 outside linebacker is probably Collins’ best role in the NFL. If New England is in a 3-4, Ninkovich and Hightower become the starting outside linebackers, Spikes and Mayo are the inside backers, and the front three consists of Jones, Wilfork and Kelly. Since Hightower can also play inside and Ninkovich can also play with his hand down, Collins could essentially play in a rotation with Hightower, Spikes, Ninkovich and Jones.
It will be interesting to watch where Collins lines up during training camp. If he’s standing up in a 4-3, that means he’ll likely be used in coverage and on occasional blitzes. If he’s playing with his hand down in a 4-3, that means he’ll be used as an edge rusher. If the Patriots are in a 3-4, all bets are off, and he could be serving either role, but that would likely mean he’s rushing the passer more than dropping back.
Bill Belichick loves players with versatility, and Collins has plenty. The fact that Collins is a former safety who piled up double-digit sacks in college is telling enough. While it’s possible Belichick trusts Collins enough in his rookie year to learn multiple positions, it’s doubtful. He’ll likely pick between linebacker and defensive end as long as the Patriots stay in a base 4-3.
Each day this week we are going to feature a different player to watch during training camp. Check out the schedule below.
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