COMMENTARY| Drafting without a first-round pick for the first time since 2009, the New England Patriots had extra incentive to get good value from this year's selections. They may have done just that, as the first player they chose, linebacker Jamie Collins, could make a huge impact on the team's defense.
The Patriots originally owned the 29th overall selection in this year's draft. They traded their spot to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for four later picks; one of which (52nd overall choice in the second round) they used to grab Collins from the University of Southern Mississippi. Although he is a raw prospect, his draft position is indicative of the big plans the Patriots have for his future.
The 6'4" and 250-pound Collins is a physical specimen with tremendous athletic ability. A scouting report by ESPN Boston's Field Yates proclaimed that the 23-year-old "enters the Patriots program as the team's most explosive and athletic linebacker overall." His versatility could lead to him playing multiple positions with the Patriots in an effort to take advantage of his full skill set.
Collins' ability to make plays from sideline to sideline is offset by inconsistency as a run defender. With his physical tools, the hope is he will mature as a player once he is coached up and thrown in with other talented linebackers like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes.
The current group of linebackers, including Mayo, Spikes and Dont'a Hightower, are all considered much stronger against the run than the passing game. WEEI's Christopher Price wrote that for now, the Patriots envision Collins as a player who can help the team with their pass defense against running backs and tight ends.
David Duggan, who was one of Collins' coaches at Southern Mississippi, told Price that the linebacker can be a force against the pass. "I've seen him cover running backs and tight ends and wide receivers in the slot. He understands pass coverage assignments, and he's so strong that when he gets his hands on you, you aren't moving."
Another tantalizing possibility for Collins is lining him up on the defensive line with second-year defensive end Chandler Jones. Those two players may have the best combination of athleticism, strength and speed of anyone on the Patriots' defense, and could have the potential to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
For as many accolades as Collins has received for his coverage skills, he was also a very effective pass rusher in college, accumulating 21 sacks (with 10 coming this past year). While he is a bit undersized to be a full-time defensive end in the NFL, it would be wise to have him rush the passer in certain situations. The agility of he and Jones coming off opposite ends in situational downs could wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
According to NFL.com, one of Collins' weaknesses is uneven burst and effort on plays. The key to how much he can help the Patriots' defense will depend on if Bill Belichick and the other coaches can get his motor to run consistently hot.
Duggan explained to Price he is confident the Patriots have brought their next great player into the fold. "When you're talking about Jamie, it's important to remember the Patriots are getting a guy who has never played more than a single season at one position. This is a kid with huge upside. He's got great strength, he's fast, he's explosive and he's long. He's got great range and a really good football IQ. This guy is the whole package."
All rookies have varying levels of potential. What makes Collins special are the dynamic ways he can impact the Patriots' defense if things break right with his development. The team has lacked a strong presence to cover linebackers and running backs in the passing game for some time, while their pursuit to upgrade their pass rush seems to be an annual endeavor.
Expectations and hopes can be heavy burdens for young athletes to bear but if Collins can shoulder the load, his presence on the Patriots' defense could be a real game changer.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report, and also produces his own blog. He has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts, and written on the topics of sports and history for a number of print publications and websites.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew
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