ASHBURN, Va. -- The "L" word isn't used much, in part because of semantics. It also depends who is doing the talking. The Washington Football Team coaches don't want to call Landon Collins, shhh, a linebacker even if Collins himself believes that's his current role.
What the coaches know: Collins can be used in a variety of ways. Yes, he can align in linebacker spots. He can also drop on occasion to a safety position, or simply do what he had done in their big nickel role, when Washington uses a three-safety grouping rather than three cornerbacks.
What Collins knows: His position has changed. It might not be a traditional linebacker, but it's also not the safety role he's played his entire career, one that led him to signing an $84 million contract two years ago.
"I am a safety, yes," Collins said last week when asked how he views himself, separate from his current task.
Washington has second-year starter Kamren Curl who can play Collins' previous role, aligned as a safety in a two-deep set, but typically the one who drops into the box when there is only one deep.
Collins has gone from being an expensive safety to an expensive role player. In Washington's 24-10 loss to Green Bay in Week 7, he played 23 of the 53 defensive snaps. A week earlier against Kansas City, he played 65 of the 78 snaps. Washington next plays on the road Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) against the Denver Broncos (3-4).
Collins said once linebacker Jon Bostic was lost for the season with a torn pec suffered against Atlanta on Oct. 4, the team asked him about a new role.
"I'm a team player," he said. "So I said, 'Yeah, I can help out at that position if you need me to. I'll have an open mindset to it and go from there.' But do I like playing down there? I'm good at it. Of course. If I'm good at it, I'll play there if I need to be played there. Other than that, do I like playing linebacker? No. I don't like hitting big linemen and getting big linemen off me. I'm undersized for being a linebacker."
At 6-foot, 218 pounds that is true. But he is not always taking on blockers as a traditional linebacker would. Against Green Bay, for example, on most plays he was either dropping into coverage to the flat, rushing off the edge or attacking the line. Occasionally he took on a lineman. Curl took on blockers, too, when he was aligned in the box. Jamal Adams, who plays a hybrid safety/linebacker role in Seattle, is listed at 6-foot-1, 214 pounds.
On almost every snap Sunday, Collins was aligned in or near the box -- but at times so was Curl on the opposite side. Collins practices with the secondary and sits in that meeting room.
Against Kansas City in Week 7, there were eight times Collins dropped to a safety spot in two-deep coverage. That is why the coaches don't want to just call him a linebacker. But they will say that his skills translate to being able to play strong safety, big nickel or linebacker.
"It's just a matter of how you look at it," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "It's about putting people in position to make plays and we believe that with his skill set and how he plays, how active he is, how physical he is, this is something that's going to help us and help him as well.
"He's an attack-oriented player. We blitzed him a little bit more than we had in the past. It creates opportunities for him at the line, which helps us."
But Collins likes being called a safety. It's what he played in high school and college; it's why he was drafted in the second round by the New York Giants in 2015; it's why he signed a lucrative contract with Washington.
"I made more plays at safety than I ever made at linebacker," Collins said. "I know what I'm reading; I know how to play it; I know where I can cheat at; I know how to disguise it; I know how to make things work."
He provides more speed in the box than a traditional linebacker when teams use a two-tight-end set and he has had a tackle for a loss in each of the past two games. But it also means in some games he will sit if Washington wants to use three cornerbacks. And that means testing the ego, though it helps that he takes pride in being able to know multiple spots.
But rather than sulk, Collins has helped out Curl by providing tips at safety.
"He's a team player," Curl said. "That's a guy I look up to."
"He's been extremely professional," secondary coach Chris Harris said of Collins. "He's been a joy to work with. ... Our goal as coaches is to put our players in the best position to have success. And so I think that's what we're doing."
Neither Rivera nor Collins knows if this move will last beyond this season. Washington could release Collins after the season and save $6.6 million against the salary cap.
"Mentally, I just handle it -- I'm here with these guys," Collins said. "My boys need me in any form or fashion. Anyway I can be accountable or make plays or make a difference on the field for our team, that's what I try to do."