Coming off a disappointing rookie season marred by injury, L.J. Collier arrived at Seahawks training camp motivated to prove his skeptics wrong and eager to silence those who already had placed the dreaded "bust" label on him.
Starting 16 games for the first time in his career, Collier achieved both goals, proving himself as a capable starter for the NFC West champions after posting just three tackles as a rookie. As he begins preparation for his third season in the Pacific Northwest, he has his sights set on far loftier accomplishments.
Speaking with former Seahawks receiver Nate Burleson on the Good Morning Football show on NFL Network, Collier didn't flinch when asked about his personal expectations for 2021.
"Leave no plays out there, man," Collier said. "I have a Pro Bowl in my future."
Throughout camp, as evidence of the work he put in throughout the spring amid difficult circumstances in a global pandemic, a lighter, leaner Collier jumped out as one of Seattle's most improved players last August. He saw extensive action at defensive end as well as reduced inside to 3-tech defensive tackle, playing a role similar to what Red Bryant, Michael Bennett, and Quinton Jefferson held before him.
By the time camp concluded in early September, Collier had cemented his status as the Seahawks starter at the base defensive end spot across from Benson Mayowa and his stellar practice performance translated into game action. From the outset, he came through with clutch play after clutch play early in the season, providing a glimpse of the talented player general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll thought they had drafted out of TCU two years prior.
In a season-opening win against the Falcons, Collier only was credited with one tackle for the Seahawks. But his pressure off the edge forced Matt Ryan into a critical intentional grounding on Atlanta's first possession, helping force the opponent to settle for a field goal. Later in the game, he made another hit on the star quarterback and he finished with three pressures.
One week later in Seattle's home opener, Collier made one of the biggest plays of the entire season against one of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history. With New England at the one-yard line and only a few seconds left on the clock, he penetrated the backfield and upended Cam Newton short of the goal line, allowing the Seahawks to escape with a 35-31 victory.
“A lot of people tried to count me out,” Collier remarked. “People talking about 'he can't do this, the Seahawks made a mistake,' but I wasn’t really worried about all that because I know what I can do with a healthy body and given a good chance and I went out and proved that this year."
For the season, Collier produced 22 tackles, 3.0 sacks, seven quarterback hits, and two passes defensed. Per Pro Football Focus, he also produced 23 quarterback pressures and 15 hurries during the season. While those numbers aren't sensational by any means, they don't properly illustrate the impact he made for Seattle's defense.
Though he didn't rack up a ton of tackles, Collier's presence setting the edge played a crucial role in the Seahawks' fourth overall run defense ranking. Pro Football Focus credited him with 15 run "stops," or tackles that constituted a failure for the offense. Whenever he got his hands on ball carriers, he was money, missing just one tackle the entire season.
As a pass rusher, Collier's overall numbers again don't do his performance justice. He showed a knack for making crucial plays that don't show up on the box score, including his instant pressure in Week 11 that led to a hold by guard J.R. Sweezy in the end zone and an eventual safety for the Cardinals. The Seahawks held on for a tight 28-21 victory and those two points loomed large in the outcome.
Looking towards 2021, Collier underwent a scope to clean up his ankle on February 23, but he indicated to Burleson that the procedure was a minor one in nature. The third-year defender already appears to be on the road to a rapid recovery, setting the stage for him to take another significant step forward in his development.
“I had my ankle scoped out. I felt out of it for a little bit afterwards, but as soon as I got into the car and stuff, I was good,” Collier said. “So that’s what I was doing yesterday. It was a quick procedure. I’m in a boot now. So it really wasn’t that bad, man."
As far as Collier is concerned, he's still a long way away from reaching his ceiling as a player. While he showed flashes of being a "top-tier" defensive end and made a few splashy plays for the Seahawks in 2020, he believes improved consistency will help him elevate his game to the next level and further justify the team's investment in him as a first round pick.
"I haven’t even scratched the surface on what I can do," Collier stated confidently. "Year three, I'm really going crazy."
After struggling through the first eight games as a whole, Seattle's defense turned things around dramatically in the second half, giving up less than 15 points per game while winning six of its final eight games. Prior to that point, the Seahawks were on a historic pace, giving up more than 350 passing yards per game and ranking near the bottom of the league in points surrendered.
Providing reliability and versatility up front, Collier played his part in the revival and with winning the Super Bowl remaining his ultimate goal above everything else, he views the strong finish as a sign of even better days ahead for him individually as well as the team.
"I feel like there's a lot to come. I feel like we're going to have the best defense next year. We have a stacked team. We've got a lot of guys coming back. I'm excited."