Cardinals LB Zaven Collins embracing life on the edge

Jun 5, 2023, 6:30 PM

Zaven Collins during OTAs...

(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

TEMPE — Zaven Collins’ NFL road map has been one full of twists and turns.

He was handed the starting MIKE backer job early in the offseason of his rookie year, only to lose it to former Cardinal Jordan Hicks.

When he finally got a chance to be that every-down presence in the middle of the defense, he stepped up behind 100 tackles, two sacks and an interception.

After a year sitting behind Hicks, Collins appeared to have a stranglehold on the position.

That was until Arizona decided on flipping the script after a four-win 2022, opting to bring in new blood from a coaching and front office standpoint.

Collins’ role also underwent change, with the Cardinals moving the linebacker from the inside out with the hope of having another legit pass-rushing option at their disposal.

“It’s definitely different than preparing for last season but also the defensive philosophies have changed, the defensive schemes have changed,” Collins said Monday. “Some positions have harder downs in certain situations than it was last year.”

“I definitely want to get after the quarterback a little more than I did last year,” the linebacker added. “A lot of sacks would be nice. Sacking the Q is always a good thing on defense.”

While Collins saw most of his work on the inside last year, he was no stranger to working off the edge with 182 of his 1,076 snaps coming from the outside, per Pro Football Focus.

That kind of split looks nonexistent in 2023, with Collins solely working with the outside linebackers room throughout organized team activities.

He’s added more weight, too, getting back to around 265 pounds after cutting down for his MIKE backer role last season.

Despite the past experience at the position and the upped weight, there’s still quite a bit of a learning curve for Collins. It’s evident in the one-on-one reps he’s been putting in throughout every workout this offseason with OLBs coach Robert Rodriguez.

“He has a lot of cool concepts,” Collins said. “He has his philosophy and as long as we abide by the philosophy and what he wants to do, he still accommodates to what my skillset is compared to (Myjai Sanders’) skillset or (Cameron Thomas’), even (Dennis Gardeck).

“Everyone’s built differently — we’re not all twins in there. We all don’t look the same, so everyone’s skillset is different. But as long as we keep the philosophy the same, we’ll all be fine when it comes to how he’s grading us for what we’re doing.”

Head coach Jonathan Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis clearly see Collins’ potential as a pass rusher. They rave about his intelligence and overall football IQ. They wouldn’t make the move if they didn’t believe he could be effective in the new role.

He is, however, far from the only option Arizona has on the outside.

Two other players vying for big-time roles are second-year pros Thomas and Sanders.

Both finished last season with a trio of sacks, though Thomas looks like he took the biggest step between the two on the field and in the weight room this offseason.

There’s also rookie BJ Ojulari waiting in the wings as he works his way back from a hamstring issue that has sidelined him for much of the offseason. And you can’t forget about Gardeck, who flashed in 2020 when former Cardinal Chandler Jones was lost for the season due to a biceps injury.

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