It was probably the most impressive NFL draft-day interview with a player I can recall participating in during the 40-plus years of my media career.
Now, some would argue that doesn’t matter much when wondering whether Zaven Collins has what it takes to achieve at a high level in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals.
However, it does speak about his maturity and how the Tulsa linebacker has prepared himself for this moment.
He spoke with purpose and passion. He answered every question by repeating the reporter’s name and for those he didn’t quite hear on the Zoom connection, he asked the person’s name.
Wearing a coat and tie and sporting a glitzy, large “Z” necklace, Collins was confident without sounding arrogant while discussing how he believes in himself.
“My expectations are very high,” he said. “I want to go in and I want to learn everything, I want to know every detail about every formation, about every scheme. Those are the big things for me. Those were the big things in college for me. Those are the huge things that I’ve incorporated into my game and the way I play. I think about those things every down, situational awareness and game awareness. Those things matter a lot to me and I think those matter a lot to organizations, teams, players because everyone at the next level is at a huge physical advantage over everyone else. So that’s something that I look forward to and trying to take advantage of.”
When it was mentioned that head coach Kliff Kingsbury said the expectations were for him to play immediately and was asked if he was excited about that, Collins leaned forward and said, “I love pressure. I’ve felt pressure since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I love it. I love pressure. I loved pressure in college. I love pressure in the NFL. I love it. That’s the thing that I strive for. I want to feel that going into the league. I want guys like J.J. Watt, (Isaiah) Simmons, Kyler Murray, all those guys, to count on me to do a certain role. So, I look forward to it 120 percent because I want to feel that pressure.”
Simply listening to Collins, it was evident why general manager Steve Keim and the organization were so enamored with him even knowing it’s commonplace for teams to gush over the players they draft.
Said Keim, “What I liked about him was everything. Size, football acumen, instincts, coverability. This guy has got rare and unusual movement skills for a guy who is almost 6-5, 265 pounds. You watched him at Tulsa and the way he covered smaller backs, tight ends, slot receivers at times. You don’t see a lot of men like this, this size that have this type of range and athleticism. So, we really liked him. Our coaching staff, our scouting staff, everybody as a whole, had him as one of our higher-rated defensive players in the entire draft.
“He also had an ‘Alpha Tag’, which for us, the ‘Alpha Bird Tag’ is given to players that have rare leadership qualities, great instincts, a great feel for the game, are tremendous locker-room guys and Zaven Collins is certainly one of them. So, there are generally about four or five of them in this draft, or in most drafts. There were five in this draft and Zaven Collins was one of the ‘Alpha Birds’ for us.”
Keim compared Collins’ measurables to Buffalo 6-foot-5, 250-pound linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who happened to be the 16th player selected in the 2018 draft and added to the discussion when asked about reports that Collins’ weight increased to 270 at one point in the offseason.
Smiling, Keim said, “I think after his Pro Day and his workout, he had quite a few steaks, which I happen to have from time to time, and he gained a little bit of weight. I talked to him about it. In fact, I FaceTimed him, and I made him get him on the scale. He was back down to his playing weight, so felt good about that.
“I think the one thing that you take for granted is when you see him, and you see him in person, realizing that whether he's 260 or 265, it's different from a normal man. A lot of these linebackers are 5-11 or 6-2. This guy's almost 6-5. So, to be 260-265 pounds, he doesn't have a lot of fat on his body, and he moves extremely well. He is an unusual prospect from that standpoint when you look at the height, weight and speed and the movement for a guy with that stature.”
Noting that the plan is to have Collins alongside Simmons, Keim said, “A guy like this, in this league where people try to create mismatches and then linebackers aren’t always three-down players, this is a guy who has the ability to be a three-down player. And again, playing side-by-side with Isaiah Simmons, when you see those two guys in there with their length, I mean it’s really like having two trees in the middle of the field.”
While the Cardinals referred to Simmons as a Swiss Army knife last year, Collins called himself a “chess piece.”
“The way I envision myself is in many roles,” he said. “I envision myself as a chess piece that everyone can use in many ways. I think that I can do that for Arizona. They have Simmons, they have Watt, they have so many intangibles coming off every edge that I think I’ll be a chess piece for them to be able to move around on first, second, or third down. It’ll be great for them.”
His back story includes growing up in Hominy, a small town in Oklahoma and was a gymnast as a youngster. He played all over the field in high school, including quarterback. Collins was his school’s valedictorian, but wasn’t highly recruited.
He spoke about experiences with his mom and when asked about low points in his career that he went through with her. Collins got quiet and said, “I’ve got a story for you. My mom doesn’t make much a year, and she was taking money out of her 401(k) to send me all around the U.S. to go to all of these different camps whether coaches wanted me on offense, defense, special teams – I didn’t care. We were going out there and performing for these coaches, and that’s what we wanted to do to be able to get a scholarship or even a chance. It meant the world to be able to go do that and all the sacrifices that we made. It brings back so many memories from the small-town kid that just wanted to be great for me, for all the other kids out there, go be great. Don’t let anyone confine you to what you want to do in life, just go be great.”
To listen to how humble and focused Collins was, it made that Big Z necklace somehow seem out of place, like it didn’t fit. So, he was asked whether that’s his personality and how many diamonds were in it.
He lifted it up toward the camera and said, putting a bow on his media session, “There’re a few in there, (but) that’s not really me. I’m not really the flashy type. As a person, I’m loud, I’m big, love to have a great time, love to encourage people to have a good time and make their day better. That’s what I encourage. I want everyone whenever they meet me and leave to be like, ‘Man, I had a great time around him, and I have a better standpoint on life since I’ve been around him.’ That’s something I look forward to and going into Arizona, that’s something that I want to strive for off the field.”
Consider that mission accomplished.