One year and one day ago, Alex Collins was signed to the Ravens’ practice squad. It didn’t get all that much fanfare.
Collins was a 2016 fifth-round pick who saw very limited action as a rookie in Seattle and who had just been beaten out by four other Seahawks running backs.
Fast forward and Collins enters the 2018 season as not only the Ravens’ clear lead running back, but a potential burgeoning NFL star. Yet he’s still flying under the radar.
“I definitely think he’s underrated, but it’s probably due to the fact that he’s only played one real year,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “After this year, I’m not sure he’ll be underrated.”
That one year was pretty fantastic. Only seven running backs averaged more yards per carry than Collins (4.6) last season. Despite starting just 12 games, he finished 11th in the league in rushing with 973 yards.
Collins became one of the league’s best out-of-nowhere stories.
But, as Flacco referenced, the question lingering in the minds of pundits and fans is whether Collins’ 2017 campaign was a flash in the pan or whether he is a star in the making.
Just 24 years old, there’s no reason to think Collins can’t replicate or improve on last season.
In terms of pure running, Collins got the highest grade in the NFL from Pro Football Focus last year. That’s because he showed a dynamic combination of quickness, speed and ability to break tackles and make defenders miss. He can run inside, outside – wherever – and he runs with aggressiveness.
That raw talent helped overcome parts of the game that Collins was still catching up on. Last year, he was still learning how the Ravens offense operated and all his assignments. Grasping the entire passing game was particularly difficult.
“There’s definitely a comfort level now that I have a year under my belt to really understand the game and how everything works and the pace of it,” Collins said. “Having that down, it should definitely be easier this year knowing what to expect and how to have that workload.”
Collins especially has room to grow his production in receiving. He caught just 23 passes for 187 yards last season, but the same traits that make him tough to take down as a runner should make him difficult in the open field as a pass-catcher.
“He’s growing every day in the type of pass game where he’s the primary [option],” Flacco said. “But on check-downs, on screens and some other things in pass protection, he does a really good job. I think he can definitely take off in that area.”
Fans didn’t get to see many of the improvements from Collins. The starting offense only had four series all preseason and Collins wasn’t even part of all four. It was a very limited sneak peek. He did break off one 23-yard run against the Rams’ backups.
Harbaugh said there was no reason to have Collins be tackled too much in games that didn’t matter. It’s the “star” treatment, and Harbaugh was happy with what he saw in practices.
“This guy, in my mind, he’s a veteran back, he’s been there before, and he still has a lot to prove,” Harbaugh said. “I think he still has a little chip on his shoulder, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he plays.”
Despite feeling more comfortable with everything going on around him this year, Collins hesitates to use the word “comfortable” – just like his head coach. In this league, after what he experienced in Seattle, there are no assurances.
Asked whether he’s thought back at all to where he was a year ago to where he is now, Collins at first said no. “The only thing that’s on my mind is knowing my responsibilities, knowing the plays, knowing where I’m supposed to be, and how I can help this team win.”
But deep down, it’s still there.
“That’s my motivation,” he said. “Knowing where I was a year before to where I am now, it’s definitely keeping me motivated to keep going hard no matter how tired I get.”