Patriots unleash a beast

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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.

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