NFL Draft Linebacker Rankings: No. 3 – Zaven Collins, Tulsa

With no scholarship offers until deep in the recruiting cycle, the two-star recruit and self-proclaimed country boy could be a first-round target for the Green Bay Packers.
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The Green Bay Packers have a promising young tandem at inside linebacker with last year’s rookie duo of undrafted Krys Barnes and fifth-round pick Kamal Martin. While they had solid debut seasons, can either become a legit difference-maker? Can either be even on par with Blake Martinez? Regardless of the top of the depth chart, the Packers are a man down after releasing veteran Christian Kirksey.

Tulsa’s Zaven Collins is our No. 3-ranked prospect.

In Hominy, Okla., Zaven Collins was the big fish in a really small pond.

He quarterbacked his high school team to a state championship by accounting for 50 touchdowns. He excelled in anything he did, from gymnastics as a boy to academically, with his 4.0 GPA.

No major colleges wanted the two-star recruit, though. During the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, Collins and his single mom drove to camps here, there and everywhere to hopefully get him noticed by recruiters. It didn’t work. All he had on the table was a partial scholarship to a Division II school. At that point, a career in the oilfields seemed infinitely more likely than a chance to be an NFL first-round pick.

“It’s because I’m from a small town,” Collins said before Tulsa’s pro day. “They told me that I had all the tangibles. I had all the tangibles. I was valedictorian, I had a great act score, all my grades were right, I had no off-field issues. everything was perfect, I played well enough, they just said that my school was too small and my level of competition was not high enough to translate over to the D-I level and they didn’t want to take a chance on a guy like me. So, yeah, I told some of those people to piss off.”

Finally, and unexpectedly, came a big break. Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery was watching his son at a 7-on-7 tournament. One of the opponents’ defenders, Collins, caught his eye. Tulsa invited him to its camp.

“We brought him into camp with the mindset of, ‘I know you’re a quarterback and I know you’re a free safety, but we just want to look at you at a couple other spots while you’re here at camp and put you through some drills,’” Montgomery told Tulsa World.

A quarterback and safety at Hominy High, Collins went through the paces at linebacker. At long last, Collins received the scholarship his family had craved. It brought his mom to tears.

“It was big,” Haley Collins said in the Tulsa World story. “I couldn’t breathe. I knew what that meant. I will never forget that day. That was our day. … Coach Monty and Coach G (Joseph Gillespie, now the defensive coordinator), I can’t thank them enough. I owe my life to them. They gave him a chance when nobody else would.”

Collins redshirted in 2017 before getting his chance in 2018. As stage-setters, he was a Freshman All-American in 2018 and all-conference in 2019.

“I want to be a phenomenal player, where people say, ‘Someone’s got to do something to stop him,’” Collins said before the 2020 season. “That’s the one thing I’m working on, being that X-factor this season.”

Collins was an X-factor with an exclamation point in 2020. He was a unanimous All-American, won the Bronko Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Vince Lombardi awards, and was Fox’s national defensive player of the year.

More than just a tackling machine, Collins made big plays week after week after week, with four interceptions – including two pick-sixes – four sacks and 11.5 tackles for losses.

As is the case with Penn State’s Micah Parsons and Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, versatility is Collins’ calling card. At almost 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, he is a giant for an off-the-ball linebacker. With size, he can take on blockers and rush the passer. With fluidity, he can play coverage. He has the potential to be a movable chess piece and three-down menace for his coordinator.

“I think the thing that best suits me is my abilities to be accommodate to whatever position,” he said at pro day. “So, I would say that the position that's able to let someone run, chase down, make tackles in the backfield, be in coverage, just run sideline to sideline. Whatever position that is for a team, that's the position I'd like to be in.”

Back in Hominy, Collins might have been the big fish but he didn’t have a big head. He remains active in the community and hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“My background is basically old school,” he said at pro day. “I’m from a small town, country. I like to enjoy be outside. I like to be outdoors. I like to enjoy family, friends, church on Sundays. That's basically what I am. I've been raised that way for my entire life, and I really don't plan on changing. I love being from the country. I love embracing where I'm from, and it's kind of different because all the mainstream stuff has kind of flipped over to the concrete jungle just due to so much population there. There's so many great athletes that can come out of there. So being from the country, being from in the middle of nowhere is kind of different for some teams when they ask me about that stuff.”

Zaven Collins' Measureables, Stats and Scouting Report

Measureables: 6-foot-4 7/8, 259 pounds. 4.65 40, 4.36 shuttle, 35 vertical, 19 bench-press reps.

Stats and accolades: A three-year starter, Collins was a Freshman All-American with 85 tackles and 9.5 tackles for losses in 2018, second-team all-conference with 106 tackles and nine TFLs in 2019, and the winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and a unanimous All-American with a banner 2020 campaign of 53 tackles, four sacks, 11.5 TFLs, four interceptions, six passes defensed and two defensive touchdowns in merely eight games. Strong in coverage, he allowed just 3-of-7 passing for 24 yards (3.4 yards per target). That means he had more interceptions than completions allowed. He did miss 10 tackles (16 percent).

NFL Draft Bible says: His athleticism stands out in the run game, shooting gaps and accelerating laterally to catch ball-carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage. Though he has proven to be effective as a pass rusher, he proves to be more valuable in space working shallow zones. Littered through his tape are instances where he sits in short zones by the line of scrimmage and has the size and athleticism to disrupt throwing lanes from a couple yards behind the line of scrimmage. If tasked with working in man or deeper zones, his athleticism stays true and he is able to stick well with running backs and tight ends over the entire field. Collins could do a better job hitting with more physicality and violence at the point of attack against blockers. In an NFL where athleticism is becoming more prominent across the field, Collins can neutralize the impact of modern, athletic tight ends and contain athletic quarterbacks.

About This Series

Packer Central is introducing you to the top prospects, both on and off the field, in this year’s NFL Draft. The series is starting with the top five at each position.

LB1: Penn State's Micah Parsons

LB2: Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

LB3: Tulsa's Zaven Collins

LB4: Kentucky's Jamin Davis

LB5: Missouri's Nick Bolton

DT1: Alabama's Christian Barmore

DT2: Washington's Levi Onwuzurike

DT3: UCLA's Osa Odighizuwa

DT4: Louisiana Tech's Milton Williams

DT5: Iowa's Dayvion Nixon

OT1: Oregon's Penei Sewell

OT2: Northwestern Rashawn Slater

OT3: Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw

OT4: Oklahoma State's Teven Jenkins

OT5: Texas' Samuel Cosmi

OG1: USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker

OG2: Ohio State's Wyatt Davis

OG3: Tennessee's Trey Smith

OG4: Alabama's Alex Leatherwood

OG5: Illinois' Kendrick Green

OC1: Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey

OC2: UW-Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz

OC3: Ohio State’s Josh Myers

OC4: Alabama’s Landon Dickerson

OC5: Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Morrissey

WR1: LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase

WR2: Alabama’s DeVonta Smith

WR3: Florida’s Kadarius Toney

WR4: Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman

WR5: LSU’s Terrace Marshall

RB1: Alabama’s Najee Harris

RB2: Clemson’s Travis Etienne

RB3: North Carolina’s Javonte Williams

RB4: Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell

RB5: North Carolina’s Michael Carter

QB1: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence

QB2: Ohio State’s Justin Fields

QB3: BYU’s Zach Wilson

QB4: North Dakota State’s Trey Lance

QB5: Alabama’s Mac Jones