- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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Typically when they venture out into Cincinnati and other parts of the metropolitan area, it's Johnson who gets recognized first. After all, the defensive end has been starting since his second season in 2010. It probably helps matters that he's the more visible face of the two, playing a key role on the Bengals' highly touted defensive line while carrying this season's franchise tag.
Most football-following fans on the Queen City's streets know the likelihood the Bengals retain Johnson this offseason are fairly slim. The odds are equally steep when it comes to Collins, an offensive tackle who this Sunday will play the final regular-season game of his current contract. He'll be a free agent once the season ends.
That's why random, football-following men on the street only want to talk contracts when they see Collins and Johnson together. Collins doesn't like being around such contract chatter. He's content letting Johnson handle those conversations.
"Anytime someone brings it up to [Johnson] and then they ask me what's my name and I say, 'Oh, A.C.,' then they want to say, 'Oh, so you, too, huh?'" Collins said. "I'm like, 'Nah, you're talking about Mike. Don't even talk about me.'"
Just like Johnson, Collins deserves to be talked about. He also has spent this season playing for his football and financial future. If Cincinnati can't afford to sign him this offseason, the backup tackle is hopeful that he has done enough this season to convince some other organization to justly compensate him.
"I'm a starter," Collins said. "Even if some team wants to get me and put me on the bench, I'm going to work like a starter. Period."
That's precisely the way the Bengals' $3.6 million man has approached this contract year, even as the No. 3 tackle in a three-man rotation. That approach has paid off handsomely for Cincinnati, which has needed his services often this season.
During the season opener in Chicago, Collins was called upon to take over for Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was recovering from a knee injury that slowed him in the preseason. Collins performed well, keeping veteran defensive end Julius Peppers from hounding quarterback Andy Dalton. Collins also filled in for Whitworth in Miami near the season's midpoint, blocking well enough that Dalton didn't get sacked on account of anything he Collins wrong.
In fact, in 526 snaps, Collins hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I don't pay attention [to sites like PFF], but that sounds about right," Collins said, laughing. "Yeah, I did that."
When he spoke to reporters Thursday, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden didn't have his coaches' breakdown of Collins' stats in front of him, but he also wasn't trying to deny PFF's claims when asked about them.
"It wouldn't surprise me," Gruden said. "He's done a great job, no question about it. Definitely pass protection is his forte. That's for sure."
Along with replacing Whitworth for two games, Collins has started the past four games as the Bengals have shaken up their offensive line rotation in the wake of Clint Boling's season-ending ACL tear. On the six plays before Boling was lost for the season during Cincinnati's 17-10 win against San Diego this month, Collins was playing at right tackle, relieving Andre Smith for an unspecified reason. Since then, Collins has been at left tackle, with Whitworth moving to Boling's left guard spot.
Within this four-game stretch, Collins has denied the likes of Jared Allen and Robert Mathis the opportunity to get to Dalton. Combined with his efforts against Peppers, Collins is beginning to earn a reputation for stopping elite pass-rushers. Against Baltimore in this weekend's regular-season finale, he'll be going against another strong pass-rusher in Elvis Dumervil. This will be the first time he's been matched up with Dumervil since his second season in 2009.
"Elvis is not really different," Collins said. "He's the same. He's doing the same thing he's been doing. He just perfected it."
Collins credits his success this season to the way he has perfected his blocking technique.
"If you're prepared to go into battle, you're going to be alright in battle," he said.
He might have one of the biggest battles of his career behind closed doors this offseason when he and his representatives try to prove to the Bengals he's worth the significant raise his play has commanded.
While the circumstances that got them to the cusp of free agency are slightly different, Collins' situation is somewhat similar to Whitworth's two seasons ago. Near the start of the 2011 season, as the Bengals were making then-rookie Dalton their new starting quarterback, they wanted to make sure they locked up one of his primary blockers. So Whitworth was inked to a three-year deal that give him a max base annual salary in two of those seasons of $4.5 million. At the time, Whitworth hadn't had a Pro Bowl selection, but he had emerged as a rising star. He has since been named to the Pro Bowl and signed an extension that will pay him an annual base of $5 million starting next year.
Some might argue that this season is all the evidence Collins needs to prove he is following a similar path. For that reason, it probably shouldn't be a surprise if negotiations hover around or just above the $4.5-million-per-year mark.
For now, though, Collins is keeping his mind clear of the numbers and focusing on the task at hand: beating Baltimore and advancing into the postseason.
"I love Cincinnati. This is my family," Collins said. "If Cincinnati wants me back, damn right I'll be back."