ASHBURN, Virginia — The Washington Redskins‘ newest safety, Landon Collins, tapped the podium and paused as he gathered himself, trying to recall a scene the previous night at an area restaurant: Owner Dan Snyder had presented Collins with an autographed game-worn Sean Taylor jersey.
Collins had plenty of other reasons to join the Redskins, but his desire started long ago thanks to Taylor the Redskins’ late safety who was murdered in 2007. Other safeties have joined the Redskins professing their love for Taylor. But Snyder didn’t give them a signed jersey.
“It took me a good 30, 45 minutes to calm down,” Collins said at his news conference Thursday. “I couldn’t even eat.”
The Redskins signed Collins to a six-year deal worth up to $84 million with $44.5 million in total guaranteed money. He was their one big free agent splash, but a player they had targeted as soon as they heard the New York Giants would not use the franchise tag on him. They were only going to be aggressive for certain players, with Collins at the top of their list. They also pursued linebacker C.J. Mosley.
“We weren’t the only team in on [Collins] and rightfully so,” said Doug Williams, the Redskins senior vice president of player personnel. “Once we got in it, we were in it to win it.”
The Redskins have used 17 starting safeties in coach Jay Gruden’s first five years. They need Collins to help solidify that area.
“We’ve gone against him many times and he was a major problem for our offense in the run game, in the pass game,” Gruden said. “People say he’s just a box safety, but that’s very far from the truth. I’ve seen him cover Jordan Reed out in space. He does a great job. He can do it all. Sure tackler. Fundamentals of tackling have gone out the window here. Not with him. He’s a tone setter. We have been looking for that type of player on our defense for a while.”
For Collins, playing in Washington represents change. He spent his first four seasons with the NFC East rival New York Giants, where he earned three Pro Bowl berths and one All-Pro honor. But Collins said he knew once the Giants decided not to tag him that his days in New York had ended. At one point Collins didn’t think he’d ever leave New York, but once he saw other players get traded or cut, he knew his fate as well.
“When we were going through the turmoil that was going on up there and all the craziness, all the trades, all the cuts – I was like, ‘I don’t think I am here either,'” Collins said. “No talks were going on. Nothing was being said. … But, at the same time I don’t know what the future holds with the New York Giants but I’m glad it happened because now I’m in that Burgundy and Gold.”
Collins said once he knew he’d be free, he chatted with former Alabama teammates currently on the Redskins’ defense – there are four on that side of the ball. He even called Dr. James Andrews, who is also affiliated with both Alabama and the Redskins, to have him talk with Washington owner Dan Snyder.
His desire to play for Washington began long ago as he grew up a Taylor fan; he even told ESPN’s Dianna Russini before the 2015 draft that his dream was to play in Washington. He said he watched only three or four games of his on TV. But he spent “years and years and years watching tape after tape after tape” of Taylor. Numerous safeties wear Taylor’s old No. 21 in honor of him. The Redskins used two safeties the last two years who idolized Taylor in Su’a Cravens and D.J. Swearinger. But both are gone. And neither was a big-splash signing like Collins.
That’s why Snyder presented him the jersey at the Wednesday dinner, a moment that still choked up Collins during his news conference. At the dinner, Snyder kept the jersey in a box — Collins kept wanting to know the contents. But Snyder told him they would wait for Collins’ mother and girlfriend to arrive first.
After they showed up, Snyder stood and told the story of what Taylor meant to him.
“Telling me how he loved him as a son,” Collins said. “And when he told me that it was a game worn jersey signed by him in the box, instantly broke down, instantly broke down, straight into tears.”
Snyder tried to hand him the box, but Collins, whose son Camden was on his lap, said he couldn’t grab it.
“I couldn’t move, shaking, son on my lap, my son actually grabbed the box and started opening the box,” Collins said. “I’m still crying, the emotion behind it and my son pulls the jersey out of the box. I still can’t touch the jersey, just staring at it the whole time. The jersey is right there on the table, everybody is kind of at the table quiet just sitting there and I look at Ryan Anderson who’s at the table, I start shaking my head at him and he says, ‘Man, I should have told you what’s in the box so you don’t have to cry.'”
Collins said he would like to wear the number.
“I have to ask Mr. Snyder and we have to talk to his family,” Collins said. “I love that burden. I love that passion. I love that on my shoulders. I definitely could carry that.”
It added up to an emotional week for Collins. When he got the news from his agent, David Mulughetta, about the deal, Collins was driving to work out in Miami.
“When he called me and told me the news, I literally broke down,” Collins said. “I broke down. I just broke down. I didn’t pull the car over, I fought the urge because I still had to go get my shoes to go work out. From that point on I was just in shock and awe and humbly gracious for this opportunity.”