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Linebacker Jamie Collins on the ball at Patriots camp

August 10, 2016 GMT

FOXBORO — Jamie Collins was robbed of his bid for a defensive player of the year award in 2015.

With a nasty virus buried deep in the past, Collins looks primed for another hard charge for one of the NFL’s most prestigious honors. He has a team-high four pass breakups to go along with one interception in the Patriots’ 11 training camp practices, and running backs have frequently come face-to-chest with the heat-seeking linebacker during ball-carrying drills.

Collins has become so explosive the New Orleans Saints admitted to game-planning for him this week ahead of tomorrow night’s preseason opener at Gillette Stadium. Quarterbacks have to alter their snap counts because Collins is so adept at flying through the line of scrimmage, which helped him blow up so many plays last season.

“I’m doing what I do,” Collins said. “I’m always at the ball.”

The camp pick sealed a victory for the Tom Brady-led blue team during Friday’s scrimmage, and Collins jumped an earlier Jimmy Garoppolo pass for another breakup. Collins’ ability to swat the ball has been on display, both at the line of scrimmage and while backing into coverage, as he soared to somehow sabotage a downfield throw last week.

“Jamie is a physical specimen,” rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones said. “It’s amazing to see some of the things he can do at that size.”

However, Collins didn’t get any opportunities to show off yesterday during the first joint practice with the Saints. He engulfed tight end Coby Fleener in the end zone during quarterback Drew Brees’ only throw in his direction.

There appeared to be a concerted effort to stay as far away from Collins as possible, not that any quarterbacks would really blame Brees for that philosophy.

“He’s an extraordinary player,” Saints backup quarterback Luke McCown said. “I would consider him a (Brian) Urlacher type. The size and speed that he possesses, you don’t find that combination of height, length in the arms and speed in a linebacker very often.”

Collins had 7.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, eight pressures, three quarterback hits and 10 run stuffs, and he forced opposing players to commit three penalties last season, including the playoffs. Quarterbacks targeting Collins completed 19-of-37 passes (51.4 percent) for 169 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and he added five pass breakups.

Though it was just one practice, Brees’ inclination to stay away from Collins might yield a glimpse into his future. That would actually tick him off.

“I always want the ball thrown to me because I want to get my hands on the ball,” Collins said.

Collins might warm up to the idea of stealing a move from former Pats cornerback Darrelle Revis’ arsenal by baiting quarterbacks to look in his direction. But for now, Collins again looks like he’ll team with linebacker Dont’a Hightower to comprise the heart of a Patriots defense that has the talent to be a top-five unit in the NFL. The tandem’s medical situations were partly what doomed them in 2015, so their health will directly correlate to the Patriots’ success.

“It’s a great thing to watch,” defensive tackle Malcom Brown said of Collins. “It actually motivates me to play harder. If he is playing that hard and making all these big plays, why can’t I do that? Why can’t I give my all and help him out to be where I’m supposed to be to help him get his reads better? He’ll get you motivated just by the way he plays.”

Collins’ ability to serve as a one-man wrecking crew will also benefit his wallet, as he could land a contract extension worth at least $11 million per year. If the Patriots don’t lock him up soon, or at least put the projected $15 million franchise tag on him in February, Collins’ value could hit astronomical levels in free agency.

To this point, the tenor of those negotiations is unknown. Collins is a straight shooter who doesn’t care all that much for any attention away from the field, so his contract discussions and award candidacy aren’t exactly relevant at this moment.

Collins just wants to make life miserable for his opponents, and he’ll continue to spoil his teammates, who are numb to the excellence by now.

“We expect it,” safety Devin McCourty said. “He is one of our better players. We expect him to be out there making plays. That’s who he is.”