The final two months of the 2020 season were a tough time for Landon Collins. He was sidelined after suffering a season-ending torn Achilles against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7, so all he could do as the Washington Football Team continued its push for the postseason was sit and watch.
It was unfortunate that the three-time Pro Bowler could not participate in the action, because the team was on the cusp of going 5-2 to close out the year, winning the NFC East and earning a playoff berth against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was proud of his teammates for finishing No. 2 in total yards, but watching them battle with Tom Brady in the playoffs was what hurt the most.
"Just the knowledge of playing against Tom Brady and that Tampa offense, that coordinator and that team down there, I kind of knew it and kind of knew those guys on the opposite side of the ball," Collins said. "It hurt me...just knowing that if I was on the field, it would've just made it 10 times better because knowledge is key."
Collins is still looking at Washington's defense from afar, as he spent the opening day of OTAs simulating reps during team drills, but it is a step in the right direction. The past six months have been a long journey, Collins said, but the progress he has made makes him confident he will be ready for Week 1.
"I feel awesome," Collins said. "I feel like myself again."
It took a lot, Collins said with a dry chuckle, to get to the point where he could trust his body again, especially with his injury being so key to how he moves on the field. It takes time, trust and also patience to regain that confidence. For Collins, it started out as performing small, mundane acts like taking a side step at his house or jogging up the stairs. That gradually started to build up a belief in himself that he can get back to the player he was before the injury.
"I can go to my rehab doctor and be like, 'Hey I did this at home. ...It felt good and I didn't feel any pain, so let's try something new now."
Collins' rehab for the past several months has involved blood flow restriction training, which is a technique that combines the reduction of blood flow with low intensity exercise. Not only is it more physically demanding, but it also has similar results to high intensity exercise. Collins focused his attention on jumping, hopping and cutting. He also did an exercise where he would jump off an object and land on one foot.
Collins also tried to stay physically fit as well through his own workout routine, which he occasionally shared on his Instagram page.
"It's stuff that you guys are not seeing that makes me feel confident," Collins said. "So when I step on the field, it's just natural."
Now that he is back on the field in a limited capacity, Collins wants to focus more on the minor details first. After going through some individual drills on Tuesday, he stood next to defensive backs coach Chris Harris and tried to mimic his responsibilities and react to how the offense was lining up. It is not an ideal situation, but he can practice using his eyes and making sure he is aligned in the right position for certain formations.
"You can see he is coming back, and he is into it," said head coach Ron Rivera. "That is really good to see."
Collins believes he has overcome every hurdle that he has faced up to this point, but there is still work to be done before he can fully suit up with his teammates. He wants to get his running form back since he hasn't run much in his recovery. When he's on the field, he wants to continue working on motions like cutting that he would use in a game setting.
"It's muscle memory," Collins said. "That's the biggest thing to get into now."
Washington's safety position has changed since Collins was last on the field. Kamren Curl had a productive season in Collins' absence, and the team drafted Cincinnati's Darrick Forrest in the fifth round. Bobby McCain, who comes from the Miami Dolphins, has also joined Washington, and while he is listed as a cornerback, he views himself as someone who can play at any spot in the secondary.
There were some who believed all the depth would mean that Collins would switch to linebacker -- Collins said he was laughing at those assumptions -- but defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio intends to keep him at strong safety when he returns.
"He's working his butt off, getting in shape," Del Rio told senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson. "I think another year in this system, understanding what we do, how we do it, making sure he's in the right places at the right time and that he can be the impactful player that we think he's capable of being. I'm looking forward to Landon taking a step forward this year and playing even better."
All that is still rooted in the future. For now, all Collins wants to do is continuously stay healthy. And while he is only taking small steps toward a return, he is still grateful to be moving in a positive direction.
"Just being able to cut, run, jump, jog...I feel great," Collins said. "I feel strong."