#36: The Number Of The Beast

I made note of it about two weeks ago. Brandon made note of it after the Colts game. A whole mess of people made note of it in the game thread. What is "it"? "It" is the emergence of Nick Collins as a top NFL safety.

Remember back in training camp when people were hoping that Aaron Rouse had developed enough so that he could take over for Nick Collins in the starting defense? My, how far we've come from that point.

Talented, athletic defender who enters his fourth NFL season looking to progress from a reliable cover man and sure tackler in run support to a bona fide playmaker in the secondary.

- Packers.com

Nick Collins has been having a Pro Bowl caliber season. His interception return for a touch-down really busted the game open, Sunday, and he's just been solid all-around in a depleted secondary.

- PackerChatters.com

His [Nick Collins] angles are better this year and he hits hard. Everyone is talking about the new Nick Collins. Many people thought that Rouse would replace Nick Collins in the preseason but Collins managed to hang on...Nick Collins has always been the fastest person in the Packer secondary but now he's taking the right angles, catching balls and hitting hard.

- SportsBubbler.com

I guess the main point is that Collins has been a downright sensation this year. Let's take a look at where he came from, where he's at, and where he might be headed.

Collins (25 years old) was a two-year starter at Division I-AA Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Florida. He was forced to sit out his first year due to academic ineligibility, and started his second year as a reserve linebacker. Later in the season he was moved to strong safety, and he became the starter there for the next two years. Collins was named to the AP's Division I-AA All-American team in 2005, led the MEAC in interceptions, and entered the NFL Draft.

Ted Thompson's first draft as Green Bay's GM was highlighted by Aaron Rodgers free-fall to 24th overall. Nick Collins was taken 51st overall, the first of two second-round picks (the other being Terrence Murphy) by the team. Scouts were, shall we say, hesitant to endorse him:

Collins is very raw and will need more time than most to make the transition to the NFL. In our opinion, Collins is worth taking a chance on early on the second day of the draft but has too many question marks in terms of level of competition and polish at a single position to risk a Day one pick on.

(Sidenote: Collins and Greg Jennings are two Packers that played at smaller schools and were drafted by Ted Thompson in the second round, and both were deemed "too high" by experts. Nobody gets to criticize Ted Thompson's scouting ability or drafting prowess. Ever.)

Collins was taken after these other defensive backs: Adam "Don't Call Me Pacman" Jones, Antrel Rolle, Carlos Rogers, Fabian Washington, Marlin Jackson, Brodney Pool, Stanford Routt, Josh Bullocks, Corey Webster, and Ronald Bartell. Save for Carlos Rogers and Adam Jones (the not-suspended one), it's not exactly a who's who of dominant defenders.

In their defense, the experts were right on Collins being a developmental prospect. He had more than his share of bumps along the road in his first few seasons. But Thompson was "righter" in that Collins has developed into a top-flight safety in the NFL. And he was confident that Collins would get there, almost right from the start:

Upon drafting Collins, GM Ted Thompson assigned the rookie No. 36, last worn by four-time Pro Bowler LeRoy Butler; Thompson told Butler he wouldn't give out the number to just any player, tabbing Collins worthy of the honor.

Everybody remembers LeRoy Butler, don't they? The five-time All-Pro safety (and inventor of the Lambeau Leap) was one of the foundations of the defensive unit that went to two Super Bowls, winning it in 1996. He was a hard-hitting, versatile ball-hawk who made the NFL's 1990's All-Decade Team and hasn't (yet) been inducted into Canton. And Nick Collins is trying to follow in his footsteps.

Both players are similar in size and speed, although Collins seems to be the better athlete of the two. Butler played at strong safety, whereas Collins plays free safety (partly because Atari Bigby is so well-suited for the NFL's new version of the SS), but both players are solid in both pass coverage and run support, racking up tackles and interceptions as fast as anybody. By his fourth year, Butler had 13 interceptions. Collins currently stands at 8, but has three of them returned for touchdowns. Both players consistently finished in the 75-100 range in tackles, although Butler was able to get more sacks because he blitzed more (a positional difference).

Collins is a playmaker in the Packers' defense. He can run, he can hit, he can cover, and he's athletic enough to defend passes effectively (29 career). Along with Charles Woodson, he is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (along with Cortland Finnegan and Michael Griffin of the Titans). Collins' ability combined with his work ethic make Pro Bowls an expectation rather than a possibility.

Quite simply, LeRoy Butler and Nick Collins are very similar players, and if he keeps developing his game the way he has been, Collins can certainly reach the standard set by Butler and make the Packers retire #36 with two names under it.

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