INDIANAPOLIS -- Maliek Collins' rare footwork was on full display during a training session with pass-rushing guru Brandon Jordan at a Houston high school. At 6-foot-2, 311 pounds, Collins was an absolute blur as he reversed direction with a series of quick-twitch movements, ripping through drills. Later, Collins slammed his hands into a blocking sled and tossed it aside in a movement that simulated the controlled violence of the trenches.
It was a preview of how disruptive a force the veteran defensive tackle can be. Signed to a one-year, $5 million contract last offseason, Collins emerged as a key figure on the Texans' defensive line. The former Dallas Cowboys starter regularly penetrated the backfield and made a lot of plays, recording a career-high 29 tackles (9 for loss), 7 quarterback hits, and 2.5 sacks, revitalizing his career after a down year with the Las Vegas Raiders two seasons ago.
Now set to hit free agency, the Texans are intent on bringing Collins back.
Having an athletic, strong 3-technique defensive tackle is a critical element of any Lovie Smith defense. And Collins is regarded as a pivotal part of his traditional 4-3 scheme.
Collins is an unrestricted free agent the Texans want back. The feeling is mutual, per league sources not authorized to speak publicly, with Collins' potential return regarded as a viable scenario.
"You look at some of the things that Maliek was able to do, he's an excellent football player," said Smith, the Texans' coach who was promoted from associate head coach and defensive coordinator and still runs the defense. "He fits the profile. He's athletic. And I'll talk about the engine, the brain trust of the defense, but if you say one position where it all starts, it's our three-technique, under tackle position.
"So, if we can get Maliek back, most of these guys we're talking about, they know how we feel about them. I think Maliek was just at the tip of the iceberg on what we can be. There's so much more that he'll be able to do going forward."
A former Nebraska standout and high school wrestler, Collins has 17 career sacks, 29 tackles for loss, and 48 quarterback hits. Collins did have some issues with penalties last season, including 8 overall and 2 declined with 4 roughing the passer calls. One of them was a questionable call when diminutive Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray ducked his head in a collision with Collins.
"I can move a little bit," Collins said in a classic understatement. "That's my game: penetrate and get off the ball, redirect."
Signed to a deal negotiated by agent Drew Rosenhaus that includes a $2 million base salary, $2 million signing bonus, and up to $1 million in per-game active roster bonuses with $58,823 per game active along with a $1 million playtime incentive clause, Collins embraced his new surroundings after a quiet year with the Raiders.
Collins recorded 15 tackles and no sacks last season in a dozen games for the Raiders. Before that, he had 14.5 sacks in four seasons with the Cowboys, including 4 sacks in 2019 in his final season in Dallas.
Collins made no excuses about dropping to 1 quarterback hit and no sacks in 2020 for the Raiders after recording 40 QB hits for the Cowboys in four seasons.
"I just didn't put out no numbers," Collins said. "It just wasn't a big statistical year for me."
A former high school heavyweight wrestling champion in Kansas City, Missouri, who had a perfect 48-0 record as a senior, Collins has run the 40-yard dash in 5.03 seconds. On film, it's obvious that Collins' aggressive style of play and long-arm move frequently opens up pass-rushing lanes for his teammates.
"It's different to help create for other guys rather than help create for yourself," Collins said. "Sometimes, you have to create for yourself. That's what I'm going to do."
The work with Jordan and the camaraderie with his teammates are significant to Collins. He's worked with Jordan for the past three seasons. Jordan is now the defensive ends coach and pass-rushing coach at Michigan State.
"I'm going to always locate my dog wherever he's at, get with him and get right," Collins said. "He's special because he's going to get you moving. He's going to make you do unpredictable athletic movements, which is the game. You never know where you've got to step."
Aaron Wilson is a reporter and analyst for Pro Football Network and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.