- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 20, 2021

ASHBURN — Landon Collins scoffed at the notion that he would be better off at linebacker. “Not happening my guy,” the Washington safety once replied on social media to a fan inquiring about a position switch. 

The guy in charge, however, seems to disagree. 

Ron Rivera never used the word “linebacker” to describe Collins on Wednesday, but in speaking with reporters, the Washington coach made clear that the team’s highest-paid defender is now in a different role. Rather than using Collins as a pure safety this season, Washington has used the veteran as a “downhill player” — particularly over the past few weeks, Rivera said. 

The shift can be seen on the field, with Collins lining up more “in the box” — with the three-time Pro Bowler standing closer to the line of scrimmage … and near other linebackers. 

“The role we used him in is something we feel strongly about his abilities,” Rivera said. “He’s a downhill, attacking style of player and we got to make sure we’re putting him in position to have success for us.” 

Rivera said he’s had meetings with Collins over the change — the first coming last week. During the conversation, Collins raised the point that he still loves safety and considers himself to be one, Rivera said. But Rivera reinforced to Collins that his biggest impact comes in attacking at the line of scrimmage. “He was very professional about it,” he said. 

Whether Collins is now solely a linebacker or still a safety might be semantics, anyway. Regardless of his position: Collins hasn’t been effective on the field in 2021. Pro Football Focus has graded Collins as the team’s third-lowest rated defender. 

Those grades are subjective, but there’s no doubt that opposing quarterbacks are targeting the 27-year-old in coverage. According to the analytics website, Collins has given up 18 receptions on 26 targets for 283 yards and three touchdowns. That translates to a career-high passer rating allowed of 143.6. 

That’s not, to put it mildly, ideal production for a player on a six-year, $84 million contract. As a result, Collins is also being targeted by critical fans on social media.

Rivera praised Collins’ play in Sunday’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. He pointed to a second-quarter sequence in which Collins snuffed out the reverse to Mecole Hardman, contained the run on the outside and shifted back inside to help set up Cole Holcomb’s forced fumble. 

“A lot of it is perception and expectations,” Rivera said of the ire directed at Collins. “But you watch the way he played (against the Chiefs), you watch the things he did, his physicality … he has a good role.” 

According to Pro Football Focus, Collins has played 51% of his snaps in the box this season — the second-highest percentage of his career and highest since coming to Washington in 2019. Only the 2018 New York Giants used Collins in the box more at 54%. That season, coincidentally, was the last time Collins was named to the Pro Bowl. 

Collins’ usage has changed even more in the last three weeks. In 200 snaps, Collins has been used in the box on 109 plays — or 54.5%.  Breaking it down further, Pro Football Focus lists Collins specifically at linebacker — on the left or right side — for 86 of those snaps. Collins played in the box 46% of the time last season and 47% in 2019. 

Collins was not made available to reporters Wednesday, but in the past, the LSU product said he’d only entertain playing linebacker in specialty packages (such as dime, when three safeties are on the field). 

But the idea that he’d play there full time? 

“I was just laughing at it,” Collins said in May. “I was drafted as a safety, and that’s where I was going to be.”

Now Collins may have little choice but to accept a new role. After all, despite the switch, he’s still seeing copious amounts of playing time — 82% of the team’s defensive snaps on the season and 83% last week. Collins, too, is eager to play this year after suffering a season-ending torn Achilles in 2020. 

He just hasn’t created the impact that the team and fans expected.

Remember, when Collins first signed with Washington in 2019, owner Dan Snyder gifted him a game-worn Sean Taylor jersey — Collins’ favorite player growing up, the man who inspired Collins to wear “No. 21” for the Giants.   

Shortly after he signed, Taylor openly talked about the honor and the obligation of wearing No. 21 for Washington. “I’m going to prove myself,” he told the team’s website. 

Now halfway through his contract, Collins watched this weekend as Washington retired Taylor’s No. 21 officially. Before the game, Collins got a chance to speak with members of Taylor’s family, including Taylor’s daughter, Jackie. 

Then, once the contest started, he lined up in the box wearing No. 26 — playing a position his idol rarely did. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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