Rookie: Zaven Collins
Position: Off-ball linebacker
Key stats: 20.6 % defensive snaps played, 13 solo tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 3 passes defensed
Moment of the season: Onside kick recovery vs. Los Angeles Rams in Week 14
Remember when Cardinals 2020 rookie Isaiah Simmons seemingly never found playing time last year?
Collins played 156 fewer snaps in 2021 than Simmons did, as he was behind not only Jordan Hicks but Tanner Vallejo on the depth chart by the playoffs.
What made this a strange development was how certain the Cardinals' leadership appeared to be that he was going to be a difference-maker right away.
Collins was named the starting Mike linebacker on the night he was drafted by both general manager Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
"I don't think the learning curve will be very steep for this young man," Kingsbury said on draft night. "He was valedictorian at his high school, so we expect him to come in and play a lot immediately."
This led to a dramatic situation with the incumbent Hicks, who ended up played 97% of defensive snaps.
Instead, Collins' main role was on special teams, where he played 35% of the snaps. He was the fifth straight non-quarterback first-round pick by the Cardinals to play fewer than 50% of snaps on his side of the ball as a rookie.
Collins had a role on run-down packages early on, but he eventually lost that spot entirely.
He went three weeks without a defensive snap from Weeks 14-16.
The linebacker hurt his shoulder in Week 8, although he remained active every week following and played special-teams snaps.
"He's waiting for his turn to play, but right now he's a backup," defensive coordinator Vance Joseph bluntly said on Dec. 22. "To put him on the field, someone has to leave. Right now we've got 11 guys who we feel good about."
The rookie's role increased over the final three weeks, but not to where it was early on.
Collins had some growing pains on the field, as is understandable with a rookie. Seeing NFL concepts for the first time is a challenge, and the Cardinals clearly felt he was not ready for the green dot despite their confidence on draft night.
Joseph said that Mike linebacker is a tough position to learn, and Collins was not discouraged late in the season.
Collins still possesses the size and speed of a high-end prospect.
His tackle ability was a standout trait of his. He missed 7.4% of tackles, which was 0.2% higher than Hicks and much lower than Vallejo (31.3%).
Plus, he showed versatility to play several positions in college and could be someone, like Simmons, who is available to do so in Arizona going forward. He took some snaps on the edge at the end of the season.
The next step will be learning from this past year and getting more time to see NFL concepts on tape and in action.
"I rely on myself to always have the drive," Collins said in October. "Someone who helps me make corrections is obviously my coach Billy Davis, Vance Joseph as well. On the field . . . Jordan helps quite a bit."
The Cardinals have a decision to make at the position.
Hicks is entering the final year of his contract and is a cut candidate. Arizona would free up $6 million by doing so, and he said he was not ready to discuss his future with the team with reporters last week.
If Hicks is let go, Collins may need to be relied on. He could see a jump in snaps during his second season like Simmons did.