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Should the Giants be concerned with Landon Collins in coverage?

It may be the weakest area of his game, but is it really a weakness?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is about to take over Indianapolis to focus on incoming rookies at the annual NFL Scouting Combine, but the New York Giants still have a number of unanswered questions about the current roster. The most pressing of which is whether to tag Landon Collins or let him hit the open market.

That decision must be made by March 5 at 4 p.m. There hasn’t been a concrete report one way or another — though Collins has appeared to be less than enthusiastic about the idea of playing under the tag — and the Giants must decide if Collins is worth just under $12 million for 2019, which would place him somewhere between the fifth and eighth-highest cap hit at the position pending the rest of free agency.

Collins has inarguably been one of the league’s best safeties since he came into the league in 2015. He’s been one of the most dominant players around the line of scrimmage, but any time the argument gets made about not committing that type of money to Collins, his coverage is most often what is brought up as the reason. Let’s dive into that.

Are coverage concerns warranted?

If there is a weakness in Collins’s game, it would be his coverage. Per Sports Info Solutions, there were 17 safeties who saw at least 40 targets during the 2018 regular season. Collins (50 targets) ranked 14th at 7.92. That mark, though, was his best over the past three seasons and his 45 percent positive play percentage was tied for sixth among that group.

Those numbers would suggest Collins was consistently productive with a few big plays allowed thrown in the mix. That appears to mesh with what comes out on film, especially late in the Week 13 game against the Chicago Bears.

Collins was caught in coverage on two big plays to Tarik Cohen. The first came early in the fourth quarter. Collins was in coverage with Janoris Jenkins to the left side of the offense and he lined up across from Cohen in the slot. After the snap, Collins got caught avoiding a quick hitch route from Allen Robinson (12) as Cohen turned down the field. Still, Collins showed a fair amount of ability to recover as he caught up with Cohen on a slightly underthrown ball, though it wasn’t enough to prevent a 46-yard completion.

Then later in the fourth quarter, Collins got beat by Cohen on a wheel route out of the backfield set up via a slight hesitation and stutter step by the back. The wheel route is one of the most effective routes in football and the design of it is so that the receiver pulls the defender horizontally before breaking vertically. Add in the footwork of Cohen shortly after his release and there would not be a high amount of NFL defenders who could stay with him down the field.

The other game suggested to highlight Collins’s struggles in coverage was the Week 10 Monday Night Football Game against the San Francisco 49ers. Collins was part of the defense that allowed George Kittle to catch nine passes for 83 yards and seemingly be open on every play. But going back, it’s hard to single out Collins as a big contributing factor.

On the below play, Collins was matched across from Kittle in the slot. At the snap, Kittle stuttered and easily crossed Collins on a slant to an open part of the field.

This would appear Collins simply got outworked in man coverage, but that’s not the case. Watch it again and focus on everyone else on defense. The Giants are running zone across the board. Before the snap, fullback Kyle Juszczyk motioned to the left side of the formation, which would be a big key to the play. Juszczyk’s route initially carried B.J. Goodson with it. The linebacker attempted to pass off the fullback to Alec Ogletree but by the time he tried to get back to his zone, he had already left the throwing lane wide open for the pass to Kittle. Had Juszczyk not distracted Goodson, it’s likely there is no window for Kittle with Collins doing nothing different.

Plays like this were commonplace with the Giants defense in 2018, as one might expect from a defense that ranked 26th against the pass by DVOA. At the back end of the defense, Collins consistently looked like the kid in school getting stuck doing all the work on a group project.

Take this play against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6. The Eagles came out in a 3x1 set from the Giants’ 13-yard line and Collins was the deep safety on the iso side along with Janoris Jenkins across from Alshon Jeffery. The Giants were in zone and once Jeffery passed the 5-yard line, he was passed from Jenkins to Collins. Collins had the receiver covered as he broke to the corner, but Carson Wentz was pressured and scrambled to his right — the opposite side of the field from Collins and Jeffery. As part of a scramble drill, Jeffery ran across the back of the end zone as Collins trailed in coverage for an open touchdown.

Again this looks like a time when Collins got beat by the wide receiver. But Alec Ogletree is out of position after making illegal contact with tight end Zach Ertz (a flag was thrown, but the penalty was declined) and Curtis Riley was influenced by Wentz’s movement, so he flowed toward the sideline even as both receivers to that side were well covered. This results in a target and touchdown technically charged to Collins with a replay that looks bad but if either Ogletree or Riley had been in a better position, that throw wouldn’t have been as open as it was.

It might not be a surprise to see Collins was a better defender when he was only responsible for himself in man coverage.

Landon Collins, 2018

Coverage Targets Comp % YPA Pass Defended
Coverage Targets Comp % YPA Pass Defended
Man 28 67.9% 7.21 3
Zone 21 71.4% 9.19 1
data provided by Sports Info Solutions

Those numbers aren’t great, but do show an improvement when Collins had to rely less on other defenders in coverage.

Though when all responsibilities were kept in zone coverage, Collins was able to thrive. The play below against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5 is similar to the Kittle play above with Collins lined up against the tight end in the slot. The routes here were switched with the tight end on the drag across the formation and the post from Christian McCaffrey from the backfield. Collins had a little more time with the route coming from the backfield and the linebacker to his side — this time Ray-Ray Armstrong — did not overly commit to the crossing route. That left a smaller window to throw and Collins was able to break on the ball for a deflection.

So what makes Collins worth it?

Literally everything else.

Collins has been one of the league’s best box safeties since he entered the league and this year under James Bettcher, he played more in the box and served the beginning stages of the “moneybacker” role designed for Deone Bucannon with the Arizona Cardinals. Adding better coverage players in the secondary during the offseason could allow Collins to stay closer to the line and play in more parts of the game where he excels.

Despite only playing 12 games, Collins was fourth among safeties with five tackles for loss in 2018. Collins has also been one of the best blitzing safeties in the league, though with deficiencies elsewhere on the defense, Collins wasn’t asked to do much of that in 2018. Sports Info Solutions only credited Collins with 16 pass rushes this past season, while similarly styled players like Jamal Adams and Jabrill Peppers led safeties with 70 rushes. Still, among 37 safeties with at least 15 pass rushes, Collins was second in pressure rate at 43.8 percent.

During Collins’s best season in 2016, he rushed 34 times, finished with a pressure rate of 29.4 percent (ninth among 43 safeties) and 3.5 sacks. It should be a goal for the Giants to get back to a place where Collins can play that role at a higher rate.

Throughout his career, Collins has been so good at every other part of the field that his relative lapses in coverage aren’t a value killer, even as the passing game continues to grow in importance for the modern game. Even those “lapses” could be easily covered up with improvements elsewhere on the roster, especially the secondary, which is something the Giants will look to do anyway this offseason. It would also be silly for a team that has stressed the importance of running the ball and stopping the run over the past season-plus to give up on one of the league’s premier safeties, who just turned 25 years old in January, due to perceived problems in coverage.

It’s not a secret Collins’s coverage isn’t the strongest part of his game, but it’s also not a detriment and shouldn’t be anywhere near enough for the Giants to believe they would be a better football team without him on the roster for the next few years.