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The Curious Case of Jalen Collins

Collins came in with enormous potential before a suspension derailed his sophomore season. What does the future hold for this talented CB?

Jacksonville Jaguars v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Few things in the NFL world are as polarizing as the term “bust.” Some analysts and fans throw it around freely, to the point where it has little to no meaning. Others use it more carefully and seriously, to illustrate a serious problem with a player or team.

We here at the Falcoholic have heard the term used in conjunction with several players: Mohamed Sanu (thanks Matt), Vic Beasley, Jake Matthews, and most recently, 2015 second-round pick Jalen Collins.

Collins, a cornerback from LSU, played in mainly reserve duty during his rookie season before being suspended 4 games for PEDs to start 2016. After coming off that suspension, Collins found himself inactive for all but two of the five games he has been eligible to play.

This, naturally, led fans to question why. Why is your second round pick riding the bench in his second season? Why did Quinn and Dimitroff draft a player that wasn’t going to be ready to play? Why did they choose such a risky player when there were other, safer choices available?

While we have no way of knowing for sure—unless Quinn and Co. hold a press conference in response to this article—we can examine those important questions to find the most likely answers. But first, let’s take a look at who Jalen Collins is as a player.

I remember watching the 2015 NFL Combine very closely. It was only the second time I followed the NFL Draft as an amateur “scout,” and I found it very exciting to watch the players that could potentially end up as future Falcons.

During the DB drills, Jalen Collins caught my eye immediately. His athletic traits were through the roof: 6’1, 203, with a 4.48 40-time and a blazing fast 6.77 3-cone. I immediately fell in love with his potential and had him as my #3 CB in the draft (behind Marcus Peters and Trae Waynes).

A CB with those traits has all the potential the world. Collins’ ceiling is a more athletic Richard Sherman. He’s got the size to match up with the bigger WRs in the NFL, and the speed to keep up with the more athletic ones. He was also known for his physicality and ability to contribute in run support, which is always a plus for a CB.

Many draft analysts and websites gave Collins a first round grade. I did, as well. But, although I liked Collins and thought he could turn into a Pro Bowl-level player, I didn’t foresee the Falcons drafting him. After all, they had drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford only two years ago.

Trufant and Alford were both good starters that did not need replacing. Collins was going to be drafted to be, at best, the nickel corner. I saw no scenario in which the Falcons parted with a top-10 pick to bolster one of the only strengths of the defense. Turns out, I was right—and wrong.

Jalen Collins fell out of the first round. He fell all the way to the Falcons #42 overall pick (the 10th pick of the second round). While Atlanta was on the clock, I was elated—my favorite LB prospect Eric Kendricks was available. I screamed at the television for the Falcons to pull the trigger on him. Truly, I thought they would.

But, as we all know, they didn’t. Atlanta instead took CB Jalen Collins, and the rest is history.

There has been a lot of argument on this site about whether the Falcons made the right call in drafting a project player in Collins over an “instant starter” like Eric Kendricks, who has looked phenomenal with the Minnesota Vikings.

Honestly, I believe they made a mistake, if only because we were all subjected to another season of watching Paul Worrilow look helpless in the middle of the field. Adding to that narrative, a report came out prior to the Green Bay game that Quinn did not want to draft Collins. Who knows the truth of that, but one thing is certain: the team made the decision, and now we have to live with it.

That brings us back to the onus of this article: why?

Seeing where the team is now may provide some answers. With the team drafting Trufant and Alford in the same year, they solidified that position for four seasons. However, both players will soon require new contracts. Is the team likely to pay both players, investing a large portion of the salary cap in one position?

The answer is almost certainly no. Trufant is clearly the better of the two, and he isn’t going anywhere. But the current situation in the NFL is that teams are desperate for quality CBs. Some team is going to offer Alford a gigantic contract, because there simply aren’t many better options out there for CB-needy teams.

That would leave the Falcons with a void at CB in 2017. Atlanta has been quite fortunate this season with the emergence of UDFA Brian Poole as a dependable nickel CB and converted WR C.J. Goodwin looking like solid depth. What they need is an outside starter to pair with Trufant, and that guy is supposed to be Jalen Collins.

Collins was clearly a project coming into the NFL. He only started 10 games during his college career, and his technique left a lot to be desired. As a player with incredible athletic gifts, he relied on his ability to make plays. In the NFL, as all players learn sooner or later, ability and talent is no longer enough.

As a rookie, Collins didn’t see the field much. When he did, he was about what you’d expect from a project player: flashes of brilliance interspersed with coverage breakdowns and poor angles/technique. But the Falcons didn’t need him to be anything more than that in his rookie season, or even his sophomore season.

Unfortunately, a PED suspension to start the 2016 season has cast a dark shadow over his promising career. We heard good things about Collins coming out of training camp, and the hope was that he could return in Week 5 to help shore up a CB group that looked anything but settled.

The preseason didn’t help things, either. For whatever reason, Quinn relegated Collins to playing with the 3rd string defense, if he even played at all. He didn’t even see action with the 1st string or 2nd string units, leading fans to speculate over his status with the team.

Fast forward to Week 5, when the Falcons added Collins back to the active roster. Fans and analysts expected Collins to be inserted into the lineup as a nickel guy, or at least as a reserve/rotational player. But that, as we all know, never happened. Collins was inactive for most of the games prior to Week 9, and when active only saw action on special teams.

He was finally made active for the Falcons Week 9 Thursday night game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Again, Collins was relegated to special teams duties. If not for an injury to Trufant, he likely would’ve continued only playing on special teams. But instead, he was thrust into the spotlight out of necessity.

Collins, by most accounts, acquitted himself quite well. PFF placed him among the best Falcons defenders in Week 9. He broke up a few passes and was an improved tackler. His most impressive play was an excellent hit on Bucs’ QB Jameis Winston as he attempted to convert a 2-pt try. Collins helped prevent that play from happening.

It was good to see the second-year player find some success, and we’re certainly all happy that he had a good game against a division rival. But his success, and the circumstances surrounding his playtime, do little to answer our questions.

Why was Collins riding the bench after he returned from his suspension?

We’re basically left to speculate at this point. My personal belief is that it was a combination of factors: the play of other CBs (Poole and Goodwin, namely), punishment for his suspension, and potentially a lack of conditioning or knowledge of the playbook.

Some have instead suggested that it is due to something else: lack of talent or ability to contribute in a meaningful way. Thus, the “bust” label was thrown around.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Collins has all the talent in the world. That alone doesn’t make you a good or even competent NFL player, but talent is not his issue. Not being able to contribute in a meaningful way is much harder to quantify, but I don’t think that was the issue, either. After all, we saw that he was capable of stepping in and playing at an adequate level.

The suspension is ultimately the key to all of this. Remember: while suspended, players do not have official contact with the team and do not visit the facility. It’s possible that Collins, left to his own devices, simply struggled to keep up his conditioning. A month away from the team is also no small thing, and Collins lost valuable coaching time as a result.

So, perhaps expecting Collins to return to the team in Week 5 ready to play was a bit unrealistic. It apparently took the coaching staff four more weeks to get him ready, but we all saw the results: when the Falcons needed Collins, he was there. And he did not disappoint.

Collins has been a very curious case for this team through his first two seasons. He’s a player with all the potential in the world that has made some bad mistakes along the way. But his story is really only just beginning.

Quinn and Dimitroff took Collins because they were looking toward the future. They knew that they would only be able to keep one of Trufant and Alford, and that the outside CBs are very important in Quinn’s defensive scheme.

With his impressive size and athletic traits, Collins may have even been a direct response to the presence of players like Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin in the division. Collins matches up against those guys better than even Trufant, and much better than someone like Alford.

The team also understood that Collins was a multi-year project, and a big gamble—particularly with several “safe” players available. They decided that he was worth the risk. Perhaps they were wrong—maybe the Falcons would truly be better off with a player like the aforementioned Eric Kendricks. Or perhaps they were right, and Collins transforms into one of the best CBs in the NFL a year from now.

In a draft system where even the best GMs often fail to reach a 50% success rate with their picks, it’s understandable that Quinn and Dimitroff would “swing for the fences” with a player like Jalen Collins. After all, if you take a shot on a player with Pro Bowl-upside and miss, that’s a bad look. But if you whiff on a “safe” player that had limited upside to begin with, that’s even worse.

The truth is that we don’t really know what we have in Jalen Collins at this point. Most who follow the draft (and pay attention to players throughout their careers) would say that players really need about three seasons to fully acclimate and adjust to the NFL game. That also means that we, as fans and analysts, may want to consider holding off on using the “bust” label too quickly.

With the injury to Desmond Trufant, it’s possible that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Jalen Collins over the remainder of the season. I sincerely hope that we see more performances like the one on Thursday night. But even if we don’t, there’s no reason to panic. The sky is the limit for Collins—it’s ultimately up to him to determine if he can reach it.