“He and I talked about it, and one of the things he expressed is he’s a safety; he loves playing safety,” Rivera said. “One of the things I expressed to him is we really believe he’s a downhill player. He’s an impact guy attacking at the line of scrimmage.”
Collins said this doesn’t change how he views himself — “I am a safety” — but that, as a team player, he’s willing to sacrifice pride for production.
“Do I like playing linebacker? No. I don’t like hitting big linemen and getting big linemen off me. I’m undersized for being a linebacker,” said Collins, who is listed at 6-foot and 218 pounds. “So, yeah, I don’t want to play down there, but if [I] need to, yeah, I’ll do so. I’m good at it.”
On Monday, after Washington collapsed in the second half against Kansas City, Rivera criticized his own coaching and shouldered some blame for the team’s disappointing 2-4 start. He suggested he’d be more proactive in addressing the squad’s struggles and followed it up by cutting longtime kicker Dustin Hopkins and challenging Collins. The 27-year-old is the league’s second-most expensive safety this season, with a $16.9 million salary cap hit and almost certainly will not remain in Washington beyond this season under his current contract, which includes base salaries of at least $15.2 million through 2025.
There are a few reasons Rivera approached Collins after Week 5. Collins had struggled in a loss to the New Orleans Saints, including being burned on a 72-yard touchdown; Kam Curl has excelled at strong safety, leading Rivera to say the team needed “to find ways to keep him on the field as much as possible”; and the team had lost linebacker Jon Bostic to a likely season-ending pectoral injury in Week 4. Having Collins step into more of a linebacker role solves several problems, seeing as how the team seldom plays linebackers other than Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis.
Collins admitted his torn left Achilles’ tendon last year, which ended his season after seven games, might have contributed to the switch; Curl, a 2020 seventh-round pick, played well in his stead. Though the lineup changes figure to last for the foreseeable future, Collins said Rivera has not told him whether his move to linebacker is permanent.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out also,” he added. “I asked these questions; I don’t have a solidified answer. But as we practice, I’m not taking any reps in the back end, so from that standpoint, I just kind of figure that’s what they’re trying to do right now.”
The switch does not mean Collins will never play safety. He played the deep half on eight of his 68 snaps last week, according to Pro Football Focus, and sometimes could have safety responsibilities, depending on the scheme. But for now, he will be asked to use some of his natural strengths, such as setting the edge and blitzing, while learning the nuances of the linebacker position, such as run fits and coverage responsibilities.
Last week, Collins confronted new challenges right away. Early in the first quarter, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes targeted tight end Jody Fortson against him down the left sideline. As a safety, Collins would have had more vision and a better angle on the throw, but as a linebacker, he didn’t get his head around, and Fortson elevated for a 27-yard gain to set up a touchdown.
Collins has always considered himself a physical, intelligent player, so he said he is, in a way, proud of being able to play both safety and linebacker. He credited Alabama Coach Nick Saban and former New York Giants defensive backs coach Dave Merritt for teaching him how to defend many offensive concepts at the line of scrimmage. Collins said Rivera emphasized this experience in their conversation — “Honestly, I make a lot of plays; that’s what they kept on saying,” Collins said — and his self-confidence remains high.
“I don’t think there’s a run scheme I have not seen and played very well at,” he added.
Yet the emotions of the change still appear somewhat raw. Collins was a three-time Pro Bowl safety with the New York Giants, including being named an all-pro in 2016, and his prowess earned him a six-year, $84 million contract with Washington in 2019. On Thursday, a reporter asked why it was important to him to remain a safety.
“Because I was drafted as a what?” Collins said.
“Safety,” the reporter replied.
“Okay,” Collins said. “I went to high school, and I went to college as a …” He looked at the reporter. “Safety, right? Okay.”
“I made more plays at safety than I ever made at linebacker,” he added. “I know what I’m reading, I know how to play it, I know where I can cheat at, I know how to disguise it, I know how to make things work — and when I’m back there, I can make just people accountable. Teams run away from me. It was shown in the game.”
For now, Rivera appears willing to go against Collins’s preference if it means helping fix Washington’s underperforming defense.