Think Outside the Box

Branded a “box safety,” Landon Collins tumbled out of the draft’s first round. The Giants were all too happy to trade up and grab him at the top of the second, and now they plan to help Collins prove what he’s been saying all along: He’ll have no problem covering in the pass-happy NFL
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — So just what kind of safety is Landon Collins? He would like to introduce into evidence a play he made against Florida last fall.

Alabama’s defensive call was “stubbie,” which called for Collins to line up as one of the two high safeties. When the ball was snapped, the receiver he had his eye on ran a shallow route, so Collins’ attention shifted to the slot guy, who burst off the line of scrimmage and past the cornerback. When the ball came out of Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel’s right hand, a deep pass targeted 30 yards downfield, Collins began to sprint—from inside the hash marks out to the painted numbers on the field.

“The distance, I would say, was maybe 30 yards,” Collins recalls, “and I broke on the ball and made it an incomplete pass. That play, I feel, showed my range as a safety.”

Collins, the Alabama safety the Giants traded up to select with the first pick of the second round, is entering the NFL with something very specific to prove. He first heard the “box safety” tag in the last weeks leading up to the draft, when a couple of teams mentioned it in interviews. That evaluation from some teams—that he lacked the coverage skills to challenge receivers at the NFL level—played a role in Collins, a national champion and the leader of the Crimson Tide secondary, not hearing his name called in the first round.

“It bothers me, because I know that I’m not a box safety. I can play in the box, but I’m not a box safety,” Collins says. “When I started hearing that, I told the teams, ‘You can look at the film. I’m not a box safety.’ ”

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Collins hopes his televised wait on the first night of the draft, in the pressure cooker of the green room at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, is footage that will one day be used to make other teams look silly. There was a narrow first-round range in which Collins thought he might hear his name called—based on team needs and feedback that he and his agent had received: between the Texans at No. 16 and the Steelers at No. 22.

The Texans took a cornerback, Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson. The Eagles picked a receiver, Nelson Agholor of USC, at No. 20. When the Steelers selected Kentucky outside linebacker Bud Dupree, Collins told his family his name wouldn’t be called that night. Two teams picked players with college safety experience in the first round—jack-of-all-trades Shaq Thompson was taken by Carolina at No. 25, and the Packers picked Arizona State safety Damarious Randall at No. 30—but Collins correctly predicted that his first-round window had closed.

“I just had that feeling. Pittsburgh or Philly were the last two teams,” Collins says. “Around 1 a.m. that night, I made the decision to go back home the next morning. I didn’t know how long I was going to wait the next day, so I wanted to be around my family and have their support.”

Back in his native Louisiana, Collins’ skill set had never been questioned. He is the only high school player ever to earn all-state honors on both sides of the ball in Louisiana’s Class 5A, the state’s highest level. He averaged more than 13 yards per carry (not a typo) as a running back during his senior season at Dutchtown High (also the alma mater of Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy and 49ers safety Eric Reid). Collins was a sophomore when Reid was a senior, so they played side by side in the defensive backfield. Coach Benny Saia recalls the future NFLers shared one important trait: They laid the lumber.

That ability was often on display at Alabama, where Collins led the team with 103 tackles last season. Among them was a hearty portfolio of his ability to track and close quickly on ball carriers—skills that made the projection to box safety easy for NFL teams. College Football Focus, the analytics site that charted every Division-I FBS snap of the 2014 season, backed up Collins’ assertion that he lined up all over the field: 211 snaps in a strong safety alignment, 490 snaps as a high safety and 215 over a slot or split wide receiver. But plays on which he struggled in coverage, such as letting receivers get behind him on a pair of late touchdown passes in a loss to Ole Miss, gave teams hesitation about how he’d fare in that capacity in the pros.

“I know people were tagging him as that box safety,” says Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “I didn’t see that. I really didn’t. Sometimes people just want to put guys in categories. I don’t really want to do that right now.

“I think some of that is because in a lot of the sub packages Alabama was in, he was a linebacker. There weren’t as many snaps on film that he was back actually covering a guy man to man. It probably, as much as anything, was because there was limited evidence of it. But I see a pretty good athlete out there, and if we have to use him in those situations we won’t hesitate right now. Now, we’ll see where we’re at [when the season comes], but I think he’s got a pretty wide skill set.”

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As much as Collins hates the tag of “box safety,” it has a cringe-worthy connotation as far as the Giants are concerned, too. During the 2009 season, the year after Spagnuolo’s first term with the team ended, the Giants lost cover safety Kenny Phillips to microfracture knee surgery after two games. The season was marked by a rash of busted coverages, with more prototypical box safeties trying to fill Phillips’ role.

At Giants rookie mini-camp, Coughlin pointed out to the media that Collins had practiced at deep safety and in the box. The sooner he can shed that box safety rap, the better for him and for the Giants. In recent years, Spagnuolo has hit the road in the offseason to talk football strategy with some of the NCAA’s best coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban, so among NFL minds he has as good an idea as anyone of how to grease Collins’ transition to hopeful Day 1 starter.

“They had a pretty complex package at Alabama, so I’m hoping that background speeds things up here,” Spagnuolo says. “And once he gets settled into that, then we can worry a little more about ball skills. You can always improve. It’s like a golfer who goes out and hits 1,000 nine-irons and gets better at hitting a nine-iron. Sometimes guys have to take it upon themselves to get better at a skill by putting the time in and the time and the time. So, we’ll push that.”

That was already in the works during mini-camp. During a one-on-one drill, Collins misplayed a post route run by a tight end, staying behind the player rather than being in a position to challenge the catch. Safeties coach Dave Merritt ran over immediately, gesturing wildly as he corrected Collins’ technique.

The old adage of “it’s not when you’re drafted, it’s where you’re drafted” could hold true for Collins, who has a wide-open opportunity to earn a starting job as a rookie. There’s a potential advantage, too, to being the first pick of the second round rather than the last pick of the first—first-round picks get contracts with a fifth-year club option, while second-round picks sign four-year deals and have the chance to get to their second contract one year sooner.

On draft night, for a kid who’d been dreaming about being a first-round pick since he was six years old, those felt like consolation prizes. But by the time Collins arrived at the Giants facility Saturday morning of draft weekend, those feelings of disappointment had turned into another emotion entirely. “Very motivated,” is how Chris Mara, senior vice president of player evaluation, summarized the impression Collins made that day.

“I’m about to showcase why I’m not a box safety, and why I should have been in the first round,” Collins says. “The Giants know they got the best safety that came out of that draft.”

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