In Bill Belichick’s most recent edition of “Well, I guess we can’t really question him,” the Cleveland Browns acquired All-Pro linebacker Jamie Collins from Belichick’s Patriots. It was a stunning in-season move that’s rarely ever seen, one that saw a pending free agent that’s near the top of his position go from a Super Bowl contender to the worst team in the league.
Collins made his mark playing almost exclusively as a traditional stand up linebacker while in New England, and he was damn good at it. An athletic freak – with an adjusted SPARQ score of 122.37 - that could cover tight ends and backs, make tackles all over the field, and even blitz effectively from his linebacker spot. A true new-school inside linebacker that can do everything you ask of him, why would a defensive mastermind like Belichick not rate him? Collins reportedly wanted Von Miller money – or what would be nearly six million dollars more a year on average than Luke Kuechly, the current highest paid inside linebacker in the NFL.
The Browns are sitting on buckets of cap space, and they’ll almost certainly pay Collins top-dollar to keep the talent they have in-house. And when the team brought him in on an eight-game audition for a massive payday, they chose wisely to use it as an eight-game experiment as well. The simple thought process made perfect sense: Why can’t we translate Collins’ knack for blitzing into a legitimate pass rushing threat off the edge?
And so, for the first time in his career, Collins is playing considerable snaps at outside linebacker. Through three games, the Browns have deployed Collins on the outside on first and second down, before moving him back to inside linebacker in the nickel. The ability to unearth a blue-chip pass rusher, while keeping Collins in coverage when it matters most – his opposing passer rating of 57.1 when thrown at ranked third among inside linebackers at the time of the trade – was a smart experiment. The problem being, after three games, it hasn’t worked out and the Browns are wasting their greatest defensive talent.
Collins has displayed some pass rushing ability throughout his 11.5 career sacks, but it’s the kind of ability you see from second and third level players, not edge rushers. The ability to disguise and time blitzes, and work through traffic once you hit the line of scrimmage.
Not a single sack in Collins’ career has come from anywhere besides up the middle, and unsurprisingly he’s not a natural pass rusher. Though no fault of his own – he’s never been asked to be an edge rusher before – it leaves him considerably outgunned against offensive lineman who have seen every trick in the book, while Collins is still writing his prologue. Through three games, a constant in Collins’ pass rush has been speed off the edge to beat the tackle around the corner, and if that fails – which it has on a regular basis – it’s a straight arm to attempt at getting his opposition off balance. At 250 pounds, Collins is going to lose that battle time after time.
Not only is Collins unable to affect the passing game when he’s on the line of scrimmage – be it in coverage or the pass rush – he hasn’t been hugely effective stopping the run from the edge, either. Similar to his failures trying to straight arm offensive tackles, Collins is not strong enough to disengage one-on-one versus offensive lineman in the run game. And although he’s a natural at keeping his eyes on the ball carrier in the run game, teams have been running to his side and Collins has been unable to get off blocks. Instead of a rangy, instinctive linebacker being the first to the ball, he’s often run right past.
Alternatively, teams can simply choose to run to the opposite side of Collins, wiping the Browns’ best defensive player out of the play before it’s even begun. No matter how overmatched Collins may be against a tackle or guard, I would happily run the ball away from him and at Cam Johnson, Christian Kirksey and company if it means forgetting about an All-Pro linebacker before the ball is even in the quarterback’s hands.
A future ten-million-plus dollar player cannot be so easily schemed against if he’s going to have the kind of impact he’s capable of, and in that regard the Browns would be smart to put Jamie Collins back where his roots are. Allow Danny Shelton and the defensive line to take on blockers, keeping the generational talent wearing number 51 clean and roam the field making tackles and game-changing plays. Collins has gone from leaping over long snappers, sacking Peyton Manning and intercepting the likes of Andrew Luck to being handled by Alejandro Villanueva.
Though early returns have been disappointing, Cleveland would be smart to continue this experiment until the end of 2016. Finding a blue-chip pass rusher for peanuts is a rarity, one teams should capitalize on when possible; almost like finding an All-Pro linebacker for the same price.
Alistair Corp is a guest contributor to DBN who often writes about the Seattle Seahawks for our Field Gulls affiliate.