Cardinals Draft Collins as MIKE LB, While He Embraces Versatility

Zaven Collins said he embraces the ability to play multiple positions and can do so for the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals selected Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins with the 16th overall pick on Thursday night without any doubt of where he will line up. 

"He'll line up and be a MIKE linebacker for us, so right beside Isaiah Simmons," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said after the pick. 

Collins has shown versatility throughout his football life. In high school, he played quarterback, safety and linebacker. In college, he showed the ability to line up on the edge and on the inside. After he was picked, Collins said, "Great players play multiple positions mentally and physically."

However, Keim was clear that he sees Collins in a set spot, and head coach Kliff Kingsbury agreed. 

"He played inside linebacker," Kingsbury said. "Like Steve mentioned earlier, it's not a projection."

Collins then spoke about his versatility, and he sees himself being able to have many roles with the Cardinals. He called himself a "chess piece." 

Tulsa Golden Hurricane linebacker Zaven Collins (23) gets ready for a play during the game against the Southern Methodist Mustangs at Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium. Tulsa won 28-24.

"Being able to play multiple positions in high school, college, in the NFL, it's something that I take on, I embrace that I love to do to be that chess piece for coaches to move around," Collins said.

This situation is reminiscent of last year. The Cardinals took the versatile Simmons eighth overall. The former Clemson Tiger stressed his ability to play everywhere in his first press conference with the Arizona media, but Keim and Kingsbury said he would be an inside linebacker. 

At first, that is what he did, but there was a learning curve. He had played all over the field at Clemson, and without a normal offseason regimen due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he did not get many reps at the MIKE spot in Arizona's scheme. Eventually, he found a rhythm, playing on the inside, the edge, at safety and slot corner during the final month of the season. 

Kingsbury does not expect a stark learning curve with Collins, though. 

"This is the position he played, so I don't think the learning curve will be very steep for this young man," Collins said. "We expect him to come in and play a lot immediately."

Heading into the draft, the potential starting inside linebackers on the Cardinals were Simmons and seven-year veteran Jordan Hicks. Keim also mentioned that he expects Collins to play a lot early. Perhaps he will compete with Hicks for snaps in that spot. Or, with Simmons' ability to play everywhere, those three could cycle in at inside linebacker. 

Another possibility is that Collins shows his ability to line up inside and on the edge in camp and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph finds a way to move him and Simmons around, confusing offensive lines as to who is coming for the quarterback and who is dropping back. 

Keim and Kingsbury are confident in his ability to stick to the MIKE spot, but his willingness to move around could be a useful tool in defensive coordinator Vance Joseph's playbook. He used exotic rushes last year, so adding someone who has shown the ability to rush and drop back effectively gives him more to play with. 

Regardless of his role, Collins said he is ready and welcoming the pressure to be a game-changer from the get-go. 

"I love pressure, I felt pressure since I was knee-high to a grasshopper," Collins said. "I loved pressure in college. I love pressure in the NFL. That's the thing that I strive for. I want to feel that going into the league. I want guys like J.J. Watt, Simmons, Kyler Murray, all those guys to count on me to do a certain role. So I look forward to it."