Is Cardinals rookie Zaven Collins a chess piece or a middle linebacker?

Apr 29, 2021, 9:52 PM
Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins reaches for a pass during NFL football pro day Friday, April 2, 2021...

Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins reaches for a pass during NFL football pro day Friday, April 2, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

You could feel the seething Red Sea over Twitter when the Arizona Cardinals selected Zaven Collins with the 16th overall pick.

For one, the pick was arguably a reach if you’ve scanned a few mock drafts heading into Thursday.

And the Cardinals have a history of selecting hybrid defenders with unique physical traits, and that history isn’t as successful as fans would like.

It didn’t help that Collins, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound middle linebacker out of Tulsa, was projected by some draft analysts as an outside linebacker.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport even directly linked the departure of SAM outside linebacker Haason Reddick to the Collins decision.

Yet his scouting profile — the positive bits — are all about his coverage skills as a true inside linebacker who moves so fluidly for his large size.

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was very clear about where he expects Collins to play.

“He’ll line up at MIKE (inside) linebacker for us, so right beside (inside linebacker) Isaiah Simmons,” Keim said. “This guy has got rare and unusual movement skills for a guy who’s almost 6-foot-5, 265 pounds. You watch him at Tulsa and the way he covers backs and tight ends and slot receivers at times.

“I don’t think he’s a guy that’s a position-less player. I think he’s a guy who’s a MIKE linebacker. It’s not like this is a projection. I know that some people have referred to some players like Haason Reddick … this guy has played stacked linebacker, which is a whole different deal. I think he’s a MIKE linebacker.”

Collins said he sold himself to teams like the Cardinals during the pre-draft process by expressing his versatility.

Cardinals fans who watched how Arizona used Simmons, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, know that defensive coordinator Vance Joseph might take that process more slowly.

Simmons, after all, didn’t get into a groove until late in the 2020 season, when he was utilized in certain packages and even moreso once he filled in for inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.

Comparing Simmons to Collins might not be fair.

Simmons never played exclusively as an inside linebacker in college, while Collins did. Arizona started Simmons solely inside during his rookie year so he could learn his primary position, then expanded his role after he grew comfortable.

Simmons is now projected to play inside next to the MIKE linebacker, so the two could be the inside linebacking pair of the future.

“It’s really like having two trees in the middle of the field,” Keim said.

Collins is expected to have a quick learning curve playing the same position in the NFL as he did in college.

Campbell is now a free agent, and Simmons projects to start alongside MIKE linebacker Jordan Hicks. But neither Keim nor head coach Kliff Kingsbury mentioned how or where Collins would then fit with Hicks still under contract for the next two years.

Hicks will be a $6 million cap hit in 2021, but there is a potential out for 2022 with a $3 million dead cap charge, according to Spotrac.

Kingsbury was asked if the Cardinals expect Collins to make an immediate impact considering Hicks’ place on the team.

“We’ll work through it as we go,” Kingsbury said. “Obviously, you don’t take him with the 16th pick unless you expect him to play. And he isn’t a guy who’s moving positions or had his hand down. He played inside linebacker.”

Keim doubled down on that: “I don’t think the learning curve will be very steep for this young man. We expect him to come and play a lot, immediately.”

Collins, for what it’s worth, did not sound like he’s been told exactly how he’ll be utilized by Joseph in Arizona.

“I envision myself as a chess piece they can use in many ways,” the new Cardinal said.

Asked if he was excited to potentially play right away, and perhaps as competition to Hicks, Collins added this: “I love pressure. I felt pressure since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I loved pressure in college, I love pressure in the NFL.”

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