Landon Collins figured he was born to be a running back. Good thing for the Giants that Eddie Lacy came along and changed his destiny.
“I was a running back since I was 4 years old,” Collins said. Once he and Lacy became teammates at Dutchtown High in Geismar, Louisiana, though, things changed.
For obvious reasons.
“When I got there, there was no running back for me,” Collins said, acknowledging the rhetorical question about whether he or Lacy, one of the best high school runners in the country, should carry the ball. “I went to safety and played over there.”
There could not have been a more favorable outcome for the young Collins, even though he idolized NFL running back Clinton Portis while growing up. While Lacy went on to star at Alabama and was drafted by the Packers, Collins forged his own career by becoming one of the top safeties in Louisiana before becoming a star defender at Alabama.
And look at him now: With yet another game-deciding interception in Sunday’s 22-16 win over the Bears, Collins is turning into one of the best safeties in the NFL.
In fact, he just might be the NFL’s best defensive player. Period.
With five interceptions in the last four games and two NFC defensive player of the week awards this season, Collins is a star who might be mentioned in the same breath as some of the other greats in franchise history.
Collins again played the hero by closing out a Bears team that gave the Giants a scare until Collins picked off Jay Cutler on a deep pass at the Giants’ 21 with 1:11 to play.
“I don’t know who’s playing better than him in the NFL right now,” Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “He’s at the right place at the right time. He’s making tackles, pass breakups, sacks, he’s doing everything.”
With three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt out for the season after reinjuring his back, the field is wide open for the award. There is no doubt that Collins is in the mix, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s at the top of the list.
“He’s made a tremendous jump,” Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said of Collins’ improvement from last year’s rookie season to now. “As a rookie, he had flashes, but he’s definitely leading us right now, and we look to him.”
General manager Jerry Reese was so convinced about Collins’ potential that he made a rare trade up the draft board to get him with the first pick in the second round last year. It could turn into one of the most significant moves in franchise history.
“He’s just a productive player,” first-year coach Ben McAdoo said. “He’s been productive ever since I’ve been in this chair. He’s confident with his ball skills now, and you see that showing up every time the ball’s in his vicinity. He’s a ball hawk.”
With the Giants holding a six-point lead late in the game and the Bears driving, Cutler was faced with a second-and-29 from the Giants’ 49. Cutler had wide receiver Marquess Wilson run a deep pattern, perhaps taking a page from the Bengals’ playbook last Monday night against the Giants.
“Last week, we got beat on a dig-and-go by A.J. Green,” Collins said, referring to a pattern on which Green ran upfield, stopped momentarily, then ran deep on what wound up as an incomplete pass. “This time [Wilson] ran an out-and-up.”
Collins sensed it was coming, and positioned himself to be near where the pass went. Cutler was under pressure and floated the ball a bit, allowing Collins enough time to get under it and make the interception. The Giants ran out the clock to win their fifth straight.
Jason Pierre-Paul said he told Collins before the game that he’d make a play like this.
“I told him he was going to get a pick today,” Pierre-Paul said.
It was another huge play in a season filled with them, and if Collins keeps it up, he will be under consideration for the league’s most coveted award for a defensive player. He’d join Michael Strahan and Lawrence Taylor as the only Giants to win the honor.
And if he does get it, don’t look for him to change.
“I’ve been getting this praise since I’ve been in high school, so it’s second nature to me,” Collins said. “It’s coming to me quick right now, but I just take it in stride. I worked hard to get here, to know my defense, to know my defensive players and be on the same page.”
In a season increasingly reliant on the Giants’ resurgent defense, Collins is turning into their most indispensable player.
Even Lacy would agree.
“He says, ‘Sonny, just keep doing your thing,’ ” Collins said of a recent text from Lacy, who nicknamed him “Sonny” when they were younger. “ ‘You’re balling, man. I’m proud of you.’ ”