Patriots unleash a beast

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This is precisely what the New England Patriots envisioned when they selected linebacker Jamie Collins with their top pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

The game has changed. And the chance to groom an ultra-athletic linebacker who is fast enough to play in coverage but powerful enough to be a factor in the front seven as a pass-rusher and run defender was one that was viewed as rare.

The question all along was when almost a season's worth of behind-the-scenes grooming would lead to Collins, the 52nd overall selection in the draft, finally being unleashed.

It happened Saturday night in the Patriots' 43-22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs, the understated Collins playing what he agreed was his best game of the season -- six tackles (two for a loss), one sack, three quarterback hits and one interception.

"Jamie is an unbelievable talent [and] athlete. The guy can run, he can cover, he's fast and explosive and he can get up and rush," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "You see a guy like that and he's one of those guys who has that wow factor. His future in the NFL is very bright."

The future is now, with the Patriots advancing to the AFC Championship Game and a torch officially passed at the linebacker position. When the Patriots and Brandon Spikes mutually agreed to Spikes being placed on season-ending injured reserve on Monday, likely ending his tenure with the team (he's a free agent), it meant that the D was officially turning to Collins.

The rookie who played 25 percent of the defensive snaps during the season didn't come off the field once in Saturday night's victory, marking his first NFL wire-to-wire effort.

"We're down a man, so you know, next man up," said Collins, who isn't the type to fill a reporter's notebook. "That's the way I look at it."

This has been a case of slow, steady growth.

Collins was a most unique prospect coming out of Southern Mississippi because he had played three positions -- safety, defensive end and linebacker. No one questioned his athleticism, but some teams wondered if he had a defined position. Was he a 3-4 outside linebacker? Or more of a 4-3 end as a pure pass-rusher? Or was his best fit as an off-the-line linebacker?

In the Patriots' multiple scheme, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Collins might eventually play all those positions, but the coaching staff began his tutoring as an off-the-line linebacker.

Collins wasn't much of a factor early in the season, playing just two defensive snaps in the opener, then four the next week. Through 10 games, Collins was averaging just shy of 10 defensive snaps per game, his primary contributions coming on special teams.

Things began to trend upward over the final six games when he averaged 33.5 defensive snaps per contest. There were flashes of excellence, but also a play or two (e.g., over-pursuing on an outside run) each game that served as a reminder he was still a rookie finding his way.

He didn't look like a rookie Saturday night, and few of his teammates, if any, were surprised.

"I've seen it ever since he's gotten here. You can definitely tell how athletic the guy is," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "He's probably one of the most athletic guys on the team and it didn't take him long to kind of get a grasp on what was going on and for him to make plays like that. Everybody else might be surprised, but we see it every day."

The versatility stands out.

"As you saw today, he's split out on the tight end, covering them on fade patterns and he's blitzing up the middle and he's making tackles in line," coach Bill Belichick said. "I think he's pretty comfortable wherever he is -- whether he's out in space and covering a guy 20 yards downfield or one-on-one coverage with no help, or whether he's in line taking on blockers or blitzing or covering tight ends from in close.

"He's a very versatile athlete that's smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude. I love having him on our team. He brings a lot. He's got good stamina and he's very athletic and tough," Belichick added.

Veteran defensive end Andre Carter has been in the NFL since 2001 and he's experienced the evolution of the game firsthand. He sees linebackers such as Collins as the new prototype.

"The game has evolved so much -- there is spread and you also have mobile quarterbacks -- and it's great to have a guy like that who can kind of control the pocket and know his job on the coverage side," he said, drawing the comparison to former San Francisco 49ers teammate Jamie Winborn, who was a bit smaller (5-foot-11, 230 pounds) than Collins and known more for his speed. "He's definitely a hybrid."

A most unique hybrid who just enjoyed his official breakthrough.

This was Collins' coming-out party, and it couldn't have come at a more important time for the Patriots.