Since the Kansas City Chiefs announced Steve Spagnuolo as their defensive coordinator, the questions I’ve been asked the most have almost all revolved around the SAM linebacker position.
Is that player on the roster? Does ___________ fit as the SAM? Who in the draft can fill that position? It’s a current hole on that side of the ball, and one that could go many different ways.
Spagnuolo has typically used a lighter EDGE defender player and one that isn’t necessarily an exceptional athlete. He’s found players late in the draft or free agent cast-offs to fill that role well enough. He just needed a player that could stop the run, cover short distances and rush the passer — but not one that was necessarily elite or even great at any of the three tasks. Teams he’s coached haven’t spent money on that type of player because finding someone who is very good at all facets of the game is a piece that traditionally doesn’t find the open market or is very expensive.
Enter Jamie Collins.
A former Patriots linebacker — 20 games played with current Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly in 2015-16 — Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2016 for a third-round pick. He was promptly paid a four-year, $50 million contract by the Browns and proceeded to be a major contributor in an underrated front. However, that contract was deemed too hefty for the Browns new coaching staff and general manager John Dorsey this season, leading to the release of the linebacker to save $9.25 million against the cap in 2019.
With Collins on the open market, let’s take a quick look at how he’d handle some of the responsibilities he’d be tasked with as a SAM linebacker in the Chiefs defensive front.
Cleveland was multiple in their fronts in 18, and they were afforded that by Collins' ability to line up everywhere. Third and short, Collins reads the play as a pass, drops to rob the vertical route by the TE, sees Flacco rolling out and closes quickly to force 4th. pic.twitter.com/F9nZaFaEdW— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 6, 2019
Coverage responsibilities for the SAM linebacker are mainly short-zone responsibilities and some man responsibilities against tight ends. In the above snap — on third-and-short — Collins is lined up in the box opposite a tight end in 22 personnel. The box safety is lined up to the outside of Collins, mirroring the boundary tight end. This is a 4-3 under look, with Collins lined up as the SAM linebacker.
The ball is snapped and he identifies pass, dropping into a short zone to rob the tight end’s route. When Joe Flacco rolls out and decides to run, Collins shows off his exceptional closing speed to force the quarterback to make a business decision short of the sticks.
A rep in the Browns sub package as an off-ball LB here -- Collins closes on Uzomah in the flat and undercuts the flat route for the PBU. Should have been an INT, but he shows the speed to handle everything that could be asked of him in coverage as a SAM in the KC 4-3 Under. pic.twitter.com/JQ9I7HYSam— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 6, 2019
Collins shows the range required to man up against tight ends in coverage, something that the Chiefs linebackers have either struggled with or weren’t asked to do in the previous couple years. Above, Collins reads a flat route by Cincinnati Bengals tight end CJ Uzomah — a player that the Chiefs covered with Jordan Lucas and Ron Parker in 2018 — and jumps it in the flat. His burst puts him in the throwing lane, and he should have intercepted the pass.
These two types of routes — carrying a receiver vertically/robbing the route underneath and man coverage in the flats — are the typical coverage responsibilities for a SAM linebacker in a 4-3 under. Collins shows the ability to do both well, so the coverage box is checked.
Against the run, Collins shows quick play ID and speed to get upfield off the edge. Kicking outside against the 3x1 formation against the Broncos, Collins ID's the toss sweep immediately, and beat the pulling blocker and WR upfield to blow up the play for a massive loss. pic.twitter.com/Nyi7mD8LOh— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 6, 2019
The speed and quick play ID Collins shows in coverage also translates well to his run defense. His ability to flash off the edge and force blockers to miss pays dividends on the above play.
The Denver Broncos line up in a 3x1 bunch formation, and Collins aligns himself outside of the bunch. The motion draws a coverage defender away, and the Broncos attempt a toss sweep to the field. Collins sees the play developing and immediately gets upfield ahead of the pulling blocker and the wide receiver. Philip Lindsay is stopped in the backfield for a 7-yard loss, and he didn’t have an opportunity to try to make Collins miss.
He's not just speed against the run. The SAM in the 4-3 Under is typically utilized opposite a TE, requiring that player to set the edge or keep the players behind him clean. He does just that on this rep, anchoring and taking on a TE double, keeping the force defender clean. pic.twitter.com/KHuFBMJVbT— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 6, 2019
Collins isn’t just pure speed trying to defend the run, and that’s one of the reasons why he would be a good fit as the SAM. As the Ravens motion a second tight end to Collins’ side of the field, he adjusts his alignment and anchors against the double team. As the run comes to his side of the field, his ability to occupy both blockers without giving up ground allows the force defender and the off-ball linebackers to attack gaps without dealing with blockers on the outside zone run. Yardage is limited, and it’s in no small part to Collins’ work on the edge.
A good combination of speed and strength gives Collins the versatility to operate as a strong run defender on the edge of the formation — a key for the SAM linebacker in the 4-3 under.
While he's not an exceptionally bendy pass rusher, Collins has shown enough juice as a blitzer to be effective in Spagnuolo's blitz heavy schemes. Here, Collins is able to utilize his speed up the arc to take advantage of the RT accounting for the DE across his face. Easy sack. pic.twitter.com/Kn4WNLOspY— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 6, 2019
The final piece of the puzzle for a SAM linebacker in a 4-3 under is some pass-rush ability. The SAM typically isn’t a player that excels in pass rush — those players are placed in a position to rush the passer more often — but one who has just enough ability to blitz off the edge and enough rush technique to get the better of a blocker.
In this well-designed blitz, Collins flashes his speed up the arc to net himself a sack on Oakland Raider quarterback Derek Carr. Lined up opposite Jordy Nelson in the slot, Collins waits for the defensive end to cross the face of the right tackle, forcing the tackle inside momentarily to pass the end off to the right guard. The right tackle tries to shuffle back to pick up a blitzing Collins, but he’s too fast up the arc and into the backfield.
With Spagnuolo’s aggressive blitzing schemes, the pressure will come from everywhere on the front. Having a SAM linebacker that can blitz off the edge and get home against a quarterback that gets the ball out very quickly is a major boon to the blitz packages that he could dial up regularly.
Collins checks all the boxes for a 4-3 under SAM linebacker. He would add some much-needed speed to the linebacker corps, and his versatility would give Spagnuolo yet another tool to utilize at his disposal. Collins’ experience playing as an off-ball linebacker also comes in handy in both a rotational role and as desperately needed depth, should the Chiefs suffer an injury to Anthony Hitchens.
Unfortunately, that versatility will make him prized by just about team in the league. Collins was due $10 million and $12 million over the next two years, not cheap. He is 28 years old, leaving plenty of time for a team to invest in him and get high-level play — and outside of a torn MCL in 2017, he’s been very healthy.
Collins would likely come slightly cheaper than another free agent SAM candidate in Anthony Barr, but he’s still likely to command a pretty penny in the open market. If the Chiefs felt like spending some money to get more athletic and versatile in Spagnuolo’s fronts, they could make a play for Collins. However, with Hitchens already on the books and other holes that need filled — along with Spagnuolo’s typical reluctance to spend big on the position — another expensive linebacker doesn’t seem like a move the Chiefs will make, even if the fit is perfect.
But if you’ll allow me this one fleeting moment, I’d like to dream about a versatile front that includes Collins. I’ll be in my happy place.