Patriots rookie Jamie Collins rises up on D

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There probably hasn’t been another top draft choice in Bill Belichick’s 14 years as Patriots coach who has generated less attention than Jamie Collins, the club’s first pick in 2013.

Part of the reason is that Collins wasn’t selected until the middle of the second round (52nd overall), as the Patriots traded out of the first round. Another factor is that Collins doesn’t project to a starting role. Furthermore, much of the media attention has been focused on the club’s rookie receivers based on the gaping holes on the depth chart there. Collins is also one of the softer-spoken players on the team, preferring to keep a lower profile.

Add it all up and he has mostly blended into the Patriots’ picture.

But on Tuesday, we got an extended look at Collins on the front-lines of the defense for what was essentially the first time as the Patriots shuffled their linebacker corps with starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes missing practice for an unknown reason.

Dont'a Hightower moved from the strongside to the middle. Collins then entered on the strong side, with Jerod Mayo manning his regular weakside spot.

It could be a preview of what is to come in 2014 as the hard-hitting Spikes is a free agent after the season.

Collins, who is one of the team’s fastest linebackers as evidenced by his role on the kickoff coverage unit, spent plenty of time in pass coverage on Tuesday. Most often, he was matched up against Buccaneers tight end Tom Crabtree.

“He’s a big, athletic guy,” Crabtree said of the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Collins. “On top of that, you can tell their guys are smart, they are communicating really well before the snap. It’s a good challenge going against someone different.”

For Collins, if there has been one challenge that has tested him more than any other since joining the Patriots, it’s “taking in the playbook, bringing it on to the field, and playing fast.”

That’s often the case for most rookies. In terms of raw athleticism, Collins clearly fits in among his new teammates, but when the defense is forced to react to pre-snap movement from the offense, or a call is changed based on what look the offense is showing, it is only natural that a player new to the system might not react as quickly.

Collins appears to be a quick study, especially when considering that he was a pure defensive end in his final season at Southern Mississippi. He was mostly rushing the passer last year, not dropping into coverage.

“It’s not hard, you just put your mind to it and you can get it done,” he said of grasping the Patriots’ playbook. “It’s pretty good and I’m getting into the groove of things around here, especially going up against other teams and different looks.”

On Tuesday, Collins’ presence with the top defense gave the Patriots’ defense a different look.

When Spikes isn’t in the mix, the Patriots are without arguably their best contact defender. He hits as hard as anyone on the club.

At the same time, Spikes’ work in pass coverage has been a struggle at times. In part because of that, there have been stretches when the Patriots haven’t had a decisive answer for top opposing tight ends.

With Collins, the Patriots would gain more speed at linebacker, and a possible solution for that issue.

Tuesday provided a sneak preview.