RENTON, WA - On all fronts, the 2021 season could not have gone much worse for Seahawks defensive lineman L.J. Collier.
Coming off a stellar second season in which he started all 16 games and produced several clutch plays, including a goal line tackle preventing Patriots quarterback Cam Newton from scoring a game-winning touchdown, Collier entered year No. 3 with high expectations. But despite arriving at camp under 280 pounds and in great shape, he got bullied by opposing blockers carrying a lighter, leaner frame and quickly fell out of the defensive line rotation.
Shockingly, following a poor preseason, Collier did not play in Seattle's season opener in Indianapolis despite being healthy. Two weeks later, the team held the former first-round pick out again as a healthy scratch in an ugly road loss at Minnesota, choosing to activate Robert Nkemdiche instead. This trend continued throughout the first half as the team voluntarily kept him inactive in seven of the first nine regular season games, and rumors swirled about him being shopped before the trade deadline.
Ultimately, Collier wasn't moved and while he did see far more action in the final two months, a disappointing campaign came to a close with just eight tackles, five quarterback hits, and zero sacks. After logging 560 snaps in the season prior, he played only 218 snaps in 2021 and did little to silence his critics.
After the Seahawks expectedly declined Collier's fifth-year option last month, the former TCU standout showed up for the start of organized team activities on Monday noticeably thicker, but that's not a bad thing. With the team transitioning into a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Clint Hurtt, he will be playing exclusively inside as a defensive tackle lined up in 3-tech or 4-tech alignment, making the additional mass beneficial for him to hold up at the point of attack.
Moving well at closer to his rookie playing weight of 291 pounds, Collier could be seen popping pads in Monday's session and took first-team reps during team periods. While coach Pete Carroll acknowledge the new scheme is "not that much different for him," he's hopeful the player will bounce back from a challenging year and contribute as an interior pass rusher.
“He’s just flexing his muscles with the defense," Carroll said after Monday's practice. "We’re looking for him to, there’s a lot of stuff that he can do in this scheme. I really want to see his pass rush come to life, particularly in the nickel group.”
Since entering the league in 2019, Collier has registered only 3.0 sacks and all of them came during the 2020 season when he played 50 percent of Seattle's defensive snaps and still wasn't overly effective as a disruptive interior rusher. In his two other seasons, in part due to an ankle injury setting him back as a rookie, he proved to be a relative non-factor creating interior pressure on quarterbacks.
Though Carroll seems to be counting on Collier playing inside helping him from a pass rushing standpoint, his prior track record doesn't necessarily suggest a breakout season may be on tap. Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, he played 82 of his 218 defensive snaps lined up as a defensive tackle and managed only a 9.6 percent pressure rate on 135 pass rush attempts. Even in 2020 when he started full-time, he played 30 percent of his 560 snaps reduced inside and posted a pedestrian 6.3 percent pressure rate on 333 pass rush attempts.
However, after bulking up this offseason to be better equipped to handle the rigors of playing in the trenches, Collier does enter a somewhat ideal situation from a playing time perspective and he has flashed in spurts harassing quarterbacks in the past. In obvious pass rushing situations, with players such as Poona Ford, Al Woods, and Bryan Mone better suited as early-down run stuffers, his athleticism should allow him to carve out a rotational role in nickel and dime packages if he can unlock consistency.
Of course, Collier will have to earn those opportunities in training camp and as showcased a year ago, the Seahawks won't play him extensive snaps on the merit of him being a former first-round selection alone. The arrival of Shelby Harris and return of Quinton Jefferson present road blocks to him seeing more field time than he did in the second half last year and if he can't hang with those two in camp, it's possible his roster status could be on tenuous ground.
Like running back Rashaad Penny a year ago, Collier will have much to prove entering the final year of his rookie contract and with free agency coming up next March, it seems unlikely the Seahawks will want to bring him back for a second contract. But if he can rediscover his productivity from two years ago as Carroll believes he can in a scheme suited well for him, as Penny did in December and January, it's possible he could play his way back into future plans.