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Zaven Collins Following Isaiah Simmons Path to Playing Time

Isaiah Simmons needed his rookie season to know what he was doing and now it’s paying off. The Cardinals hope Zaven Collins follows the same path.

Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has a bone to pick with those who are unrealistic and often begin questioning first-round picks when they are still in their rookie season. 

Especially at certain positions.

That has been the case the last two years with linebackers Isaiah Simmons, the eighth overall pick in 2020, and Zaven Collins, this year’s 16th overall selection.

It took until this season for Simmons to become a full-time player and some of the same rookie adjustments have occurred with Collins.

Joseph said, “I think it's crazy. And I've always said this about first-round picks, right? They are all running on a timeline. And to rush a player out there too soon, you may lose him. There’s been plenty of first-round picks that played too soon, that had too many scars to recover from, and that's not where Zaven's at.

“So it's a fine line between putting them out there too soon and it's certain positions. It's a Mike ‘backer, it's a quarterback. I think runners play early, tight ends play early, D-line guys play early. But it's tough when you're a signal-caller, and you have to have a grasp of the whole system to play early and to be successful. Sometimes playing them too soon can hurt players’ futures.”

Of course, the raised expectations aren’t heard only from fans and media. 

The teams are often a part of it, extolling the virtues of high picks immediately after the selection. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury not only went out on a limb, but they fell off it in April when they proclaimed Collins the starting MIKE linebacker. 

Keim then told Jordan Hicks he couldn’t compete for the starting job supposedly being handed to Collins.

Hicks might not be All-Pro caliber, but it’s very clear the defense wouldn’t be playing at the level it is if Collins had been the starter instead of Hicks.

Hicks played 1,024 snaps (92%) last season and is at 666 (96%) this year. Collins, who has recently been affected by a shoulder injury, is at 190 snaps (27%). 

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That’s not been decidedly different than the 376 snaps (34%) Simmons played as a rookie. He was healthy all season and also played multiple positions. This season, Simmons is slightly behind Hicks with 652 snaps (94%).

Joseph is fine where Collins is and acknowledged his growing pains have been “similar” to Simmons.

“Obviously, playing NFL MIKE linebacker, it's a tough assignment,” Joseph said. “And he's been really good as far as the work aspect of it. He got injured a couple weeks ago, and that set him back a little bit. And Tanner (Vallejo) played pretty good football for us, so we didn't want to change it back when it was good. But he's healthy. He's back working, and we'll see where it goes.

“He's been working hard at it and he wants to get better and better. And when he was healthy, he was making some plays, so that won't change.”

Joseph said the biggest challenge was calling plays while learning. 

“Having Hicksey obviously has helped him,” Joseph said, “but it's just a tough spot to play for a rookie. But he's not discouraged by any means. We've got six games to go, hopefully plus the playoffs and we need him. So he is definitely a big part of our defense still.”

Reflecting back on his entire rookie year and where he is now, Simmons said, “Last year, no preseason sucked. Then, didn't really have a lot of continuous reps under my belt in the NFL, which was also a little hard. It's hard to get into a groove like that. So, compared to last year, I'd say around this time I felt a lot more comfortable than I did at the beginning of the season last year, but even now I feel like it's night and day. Just kind of feels like college all over again where you come in, you're learning the playbook.

“And things may not go exactly how you plan and then you start learning it more and more, start making more plays. I just feel like I'm just getting more and more and more comfortable literally day by day. I feel like I have a great grasp on the playbook just from playing everywhere.”

Joseph seconded that when asked if the growth is mostly being able to play and not having to think.

Said Joseph, emphatically, “Yes, and that's the biggest thing with Isaiah. Isaiah still plays about three spots for us on Sundays, and now it's easy for us. He can help others now. Last year, we kind of kept his package small so he could play fast and play with comfort.

“But this year, he has a lot going on in each game plan. He's blitzing, he's playing SAM, he's playing some nickel for us. He's playing some outside ‘backer, but it's easy now for him to get aligned and play fast with multiple calls in his head. And last year, it wasn't that easy.”