The free-agent addition of linebacker Demario Davis in 2018 transformed the defense of the New Orleans Saints into one of the league's best units. Adding LB Kwon Alexander in a mid-season trade further bolstered the team's athleticism at the position. The play of their two star linebackers helped the Saints finish in the top-five of the league in most major defensive categories in 2020.
New Orleans has had good luck with veteran acquisitions at linebacker since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006. The team has not had nearly the success when drafting linebackers during this same period. Stephone Anthony, Hau'oli Kikaha, Martez Wilson, and Alex Anzalone were players that were drafted within the first three rounds who failed to meet expectations. The jury is still out on Zack Baun, a 3rd round choice last season.
Alexander, who injured his Achilles late last year, was released this offseason in a salary-cap move. Anzalone signed with Detroit as a free agent, and unrestricted free agent veteran Craig Robertson remains unsigned. These departures have left New Orleans with a need at linebacker to complement Davis as the draft approaches.
There are several starting-caliber linebackers that will be available on the second day of the draft. The subject of today's draft spotlight is a linebacker who will come off the board in the 1st round and could be available with the 28th pick if the Saints look to shore up this position with their first selection.
ZAVEN COLLINS, LINEBACKER (TULSA)
Pro Day 40 = 4.67 seconds
NFL.com Comparison (Lance Zierlein): Leighton Vander Esch (Cowboys)
After starring at quarterback and linebacker for Hominy High School in Oklahoma, Collins stayed in-state to attend Tulsa. He would redshirt his first season but started 10 games in 2018. His 85 tackles (9.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, 1 interception, and three passes broken up were good enough for 1st team Freshman All-American recognition.
Collins gained even more national attention in 2019 as a redshirt sophomore. He was second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and 106 total stops, adding 2 sacks and breaking up three passes. That would be a harbinger of things to come, as Collins established himself as one of college football's finest defenders in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic limited Tulsa to just eight regular-season games a year ago. Collins would lead his team with 11.5 tackles for loss among his 54 total tackles. He’d also record 4 sacks, intercepted 4 passes (returning two for scores), and even blocked a kick.
Collins would win The Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski Awards as the nation's best defender in 2020, while also earning 1st team All-American accolades and being named the American Conference defensive player of the year.
Collins must be more aggressive when taking on blockers against the run to take better advantage of his strength. He was rarely asked to handle man-to-man responsibilities in coverage. He has the speed to run with backs and tight ends down the field but is tight-hipped in his change-of-direction. That can also slow his sideline-to-sideline pursuit of a ball carrier.
Some scouts have pointed to Collins' instincts and ability to diagnose plays as average. He was caught out of position or overran plays occasionally, especially against zone blocking schemes. Collins would occasionally play with too much finesse, rather than using his size as an advantage. As a pass rusher, he doesn't possess many moves when engaged with a blocker.
Zaven Collins has a blend of size and athletic ability rare for a linebacker at any level. He has the range to be a factor all over the field and an outstanding burst to the ball in the open field. His fundamentals as a tackler are solid and pack a punch as a hitter. He plays downhill at all times and has a non-stop motor in pursuit.
Collins has a smooth drop into zones as a pass defender and has terrific awareness when the ball is in the air. He has excellent discipline against the run and when in coverage. His disciplined play, combined with his constant effort, athleticism, and size have been enough to cover up delayed diagnosis. However, he will need to hone his instincts and play with sharper aggressiveness to optimize success at the next level.
New Orleans has glaring needs at both cornerback and linebacker as they enter the draft, along with depth along the defensive line and for their pass catchers on offense. Zaven Collins has the combination of physical tools to reverse the trend of early-round draft disappointments the Saints have had in recent years at linebacker.
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