FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots were confident they were getting a pretty good football player when they drafted Jamie Collins with the 52nd pick of the 2013 draft.

Few others did, however, because Collins was way under the radar. His team, Southern Mississippi, didn’t win a game in his senior year.

But Patriots Coach Bill Belichick looked at Collins’ college career, where he played safety, then linebacker, then defensive end (after playing quarterback in high school) and saw a kid who could do it all. He was big (6-foot-3, 250 pounds), athletic, versatile and competitive – even when his team wasn’t.

Now in his second season, Collins is making Belichick look like a genius. Other than cornerback Darrelle Revis, the 25-year-old native of McCall Creek, Mississippi, has been the most valuable player on the defense.

Playing linebacker, Collins leads the Patriots in tackles with 104 (71 unassisted) and continually has come up with huge plays. On Sunday, in the 17-16 win over the New York Jets, Collins made a leaping fourth-quarter interception to blunt one drive. The week before, in a 41-13 win over Miami, he blocked a field-goal attempt that was returned for a touchdown by Kyle Arrington.

“He’s been making plays that are game-changers,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, another big play-maker. “I think last year he got some very valuable experience. Now that he’s had that he’s out there just making plays, using his instincts and playing at a high level, which we need.”

We saw a glimpse of Collins’ ability when injuries forced him into the lineup late last season. He had 13 tackles, a sack and an interception in the playoffs.

But this year he’s really taken off – even if Collins doesn’t like to talk about it. He is seldom seen by reporters in the locker room and even more reluctant to conduct an interview. But his teammates know what they have.

“You look at the physical talent that kid has and it really is jaw-dropping,” said special teams ace Matthew Slater. “And now he’s just really taken it to the field and making plays to help our football team.”

Collins has the speed to cover the field sideline-to-sideline, to cover running backs or tight ends and to blitz the quarterback. He’s tall with long arms and has good jumping ability, making him even more valuable in pass coverage.

He’s also strong enough to take on blockers inside and stop runs. And versatile enough to be on special teams.

“He just keeps playing faster and faster each week, it seems like,” said Belichick after the Miami game. “He gets a key and he’s able to make plays, whether it be in the kicking game or running through, making tackles for loss in the running game or tackles in the open field on receivers and backs. He’s playing well and strung together quite a few weeks of good football.”

Safety Devin McCourty said the biggest improvement this year is in Collins’ leadership. While he was a starter from Day One of training camp, he had to take on a bigger load when veteran Jerod Mayo went down with a knee injury Oct. 12. Suddenly Collins and Dont’a Hightower became the leaders, the guys who had to keep the front seven together.

“He’s been a good player for us since he’s stepped on the field but I think he’s turned into a leader, turned into a linebacker that’s able to control the whole defense,” McCourty said. “With Jamie’s athletic ability and now his knowledge, there’s not much he can’t do on the field. Just watch him out there; you can see it.

“He sticks out on the film, I don’t care where he’s at. He’s usually making some type of play that really only a couple of guys in this league can make.”

Collins missed the second game of the season with an injury. Otherwise he’s been a stud. He has had four games with double-digit tackles. He has three sacks, six quarterback hits, two interceptions, three pass-defendeds, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and two special-teams tackles.

There is no other player on the roster with that overall game.

“He’s just one of those gifted athletes who has all the right intangibles that you can’t coach,” said Arrington, who added that Collins is much more vocal this year and able to get other defenders into position on every play.

Both Ninkovich and McCourty feel the best is yet to come with Collins.

“You’re seeing a young guy who’s playing more and more football and each game he plays he gets better,” said McCourty. “I think that’s obvious.”