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The case for moving Landon Collins to linebacker

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Baltimore Ravens v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When Landon Collins torn his Achilles tendon against the Cowboys earlier in the year, it brought an end to his rather lackluster season. Collins had a single interception, but had missed a number of critical tackles badly, and had been burned in pass coverage several times as well. His Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 60 was essentially the same as that of the 7th round rookie, Kamren Curl (59.7), who replaced him, and who seems to be improving with each passing week.

When Washington signed Collins to a record-breaking deal in 2019, some celebrated, but many here worried that it was too rich a contract, particularly for a player of Collins’ limited skillset. After all, even New York Giants’ fans conceded that Collins’ was basically a “box safety,” meaning that he played his best when he was positioned close to the line of scrimmage. The stats bear that out as well:

In the past three years (2016-2018), PFF ranked Collins tied for 10th among all safeties when lined up in the box (close to the line of scrimmage), and 49th when lined up deeper in a free safety position. He ranked fifth when lined up in the slot, an indication he excels using his strength in confined areas.

As a run defender, Collins ranked 11th in the league the past three years. In coverage, his ranking dropped to 21st. His run defense operating in the box was rated sixth-best in the NFL and his deep coverage was 43rd.

Unsurprisingly, Collins’ coverage didn’t show dramatic improvement when he arrived in Washington, either in 2019 or 2020. And, his overall play hasn’t merited anything close to being the 4th highest paid safety in the NFL.

So what are our options? Collins obviously won’t be back until the 2021 season, assuming his rehabilitation goes smoothly. Thankfully, Curl seems to be developing well, and there’s a chance he’s the long term answer - or at least part of the answer - at strong safety, at about 1/20 the cost of Collins. Given the structure of Collins’ contract, which was backloaded, he’s too expensive to cut until likely after the 2022 season. So how do we make the best of the current situation?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Kill Two Birds with One Stone

The WFT’s linebacking corps is widely acknowledged to be the weakest link in an otherwise improving defensive group. The defensive line is stacked with first round draft picks who are making life difficult on opposing quarterbacks, giving them the least “pressure free” time in the pocket in the NFL so far this year. That pressure is short-circuited, however, when QBs are able to complete an abundance of short, quick passes just beyond the defensive line because our linebackers aren’t athletic enough to cover tight ends and slot receivers. There’s hope that in the next draft, and perhaps free agency, the WFT will add some LB talent before the 2021 season. But what if they’ve already got part of the answer in their midst?

As Collins was preparing to depart New York last March, PFF published an article on him, “Landon Collins is the best off-ball linebacker entering free agency.” The article started with the provocative premise that Collins, not the Ravens’ CJ Mosley, was actually the best LB in the 2019 free agent class. The only issue was, Collins wasn’t yet an LB.

The Giants used Collins in more than half of his snaps in 2018 either in the box or along the line of scrimmage and he racked up 79 tackles.

His real value though, and the real value of any linebacker, shines through in the passing game. There’s a vast difference in responsibility between underneath and deep zones. The latter is where Collins admittedly struggled throughout his career, as his angles and lack of top-end speed got exposed down the field. In fact, all six of his pass-breakups this year came either underneath or guarding the slot. His instincts as an underneath zone defender are exceptional.

In another piece that offseason, PFF suggested that Collins should be used more aggressively in the pass rushing game, a la Derwin James:

If Collins was used in pass-rushing as much as Derwin James was, he may have been even more of an impact player for the Giants. In fact, Collins finished with the 10th-best pass-rushing grade (73.7) among safeties in 2016, and the 11th-best pass-rushing grade (72.5) in 2017; both of those seasons also happen to have Collins’ two-highest pass-rush snap percentages of his career. Despite having proved his ability as a pass-rusher, Collins rushed the quarterback on only 4.3% of his snaps last season, which doesn’t even rank in the top-twenty among safeties.

The Giants toyed with moving Collins to linebacker in 2016, but he strenuously objected, and the idea withered. He also, apparently, resents being called a “box safety,” but the numbers seem not to be lying in this instance. After 6 years in the league, we can see what Collins is, and what he isn’t. I think the question now is: “Can coaches Rivera and Del Rio convince Collins to set aside his ego for the good of the team in order that he can play where the team needs him most, and where it can best utilize his strengths?”

Poll

Where should the WFT play Landon Collins next year?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Strong safety
    (135 votes)
  • 1%
    Free safety
    (18 votes)
  • 89%
    Linebacker
    (1351 votes)
1504 votes total Vote Now