Sean Taylor only played in the NFL for four years, but that was long enough from him to influence an entire generation of young safeties, including the Chiefs’ Eric Berry and apparently, Alabama star Landon Collins.
Collins, who measures in at 6 feet and 228 pounds, is regarded as the top player at his position in this year’s NFL Draft. At the Combine last week, Collins embraced the title of “box safety,” touting a physical style of play befitting the position.
“If I could compare myself (to someone, it would be Seattle’s) Kam Chancellor,” Collins said. “But I always idolized myself after Sean Taylor. That’s my (role) model … just his physical presence and passion for the game. You could see it every time he touched the field.”
In fact, Collins is so serious about replicating Taylor’s style of play that since high school, he has followed a ritual of watching an hour’s worth of Taylor highlights either the morning of or the night before every game.
“I just watch his YouTube videos,” said Collins, who wore Taylor’s old Miami jersey number (26) at Alabama. “I watch (an hour’s worth of) videos on him. I watch a 30-minute video, then there’s the 22-minute video, then a seven-minute video, then there’s a “30 For 30” of him … there’s so much stuff I’ve watched of him.”
Taylor, who was an NFL star for Washington before his murder in 2007, was bigger (6 feet 2, 230 pounds) and perhaps slightly faster than Collins, who ran an impressive 4.53 40-yard dash at this year’s Combine. Taylor also played free safety and thrived in deep coverage with his hitting and ball skills, while Collins occasionally played around the line of scrimmage as a sort of dime linebacker, similar to the way Arizona used 2014 second-round pick Deone Bucannon, who was also billed as a box safety.
“He reminds me a little bit of Deone Bucannon last year, who went late to Arizona,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I love the way Arizona used him, which was kind of a strong safety in their base coverage, and then dime linebacker in their nickel and dime. Big enough to take on a run but certainly quick and athletic enough to cover running backs and tight ends ... and that’s what I see with Landon Collins.”
And while box safeties have seen their value dip with the continued rise of the passing game in the NFL, Collins is comfortable with the label because he understands what his strengths are.
“I’m cool with it,” Collins said. “I’m physical. I like being in the box There’s not that much area to cover and it’s easy. If the running back is coming through I can meet him in the hole and I’ll definitely be right there to bring him down.”
As a true junior, Collins proved as much last season, when he led the Crimson Tide in tackles with 103 (4 1/2 for loss) and also had three interceptions, seven pass breakups and 10 pass deflections.
Collins, who has a reputation as a willing hitter with good instincts against the run, smiled when asked about his biggest hit in college, first noting his shot on West Virginia’s Jordan Thompson before settling on his hit on Florida’s Latroy Pittman, Jr., in 2014, which was ruled an incompletion.
“We were in Cover 2 and I came downhill,” Collins said. “That was a better lick than I planned … (I was just) coming downhill and making sure I just knocked the ball from him.”
Collins, however, is not an elite sideline-to-sideline coverage safety in the mold of, say, Seattle’s Earl Thomas. His NFL.com draft profile notes that he has average recovery speed and inconsistent route recognition, and if the Chiefs fail to retain Ron Parker’s services this offseason, one could argue that finding a rangy free safety could make more sense than spending the 18th pick in the draft on a box safety cut from the mold of their other starting safeties last year, Berry and Husain Abdullah.
But Collins has had his moments in coverage — the same draft profile also notes that he tracks the football and times his leaps well — and the 22-year-old Collins pointed to Chancellor as an example of a player with similar strengths who developed into an impact player.
“It’s been great because you’ve got a big safety that they say can’t move, can’t do this, can’t do that, can’t cover the middle of the field, and he shows that when he has an opportunity to do that, people fear him,” Collins said. “That’s what we like to do.”
And one thing teams don’t have to worry about with him, Collins insisted, is his effort. He says he loves to play the game, a realization that never fails to hit him when watching pregame videos of Taylor, who was the top-10 pick in 2004 that Collins hopes to be in 2015.
“You can ask my coaching staff at Alabama — I played my heart out and it will be the same (way) when I get to the NFL,” Collins said. “Hearing that top 10 talk, I’m humbled by it.”