If there was any question where Arizona’s newest defensive player Zaven Collins would play on the field, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim had the answer in a hurry.
”He’ll line up at Mike linebacker for us,” Keim said. ”Right next to Isaiah Simmons.”
The Cardinals went with a linebacker in the first round of the NFL draft for a second straight season, grabbing Collins with the No. 16 overall pick Thursday night following his breakout junior season at Tulsa. Now Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury are confident the middle of their defense is secure for years to come.
Arizona drafted Simmons with the No. 8 overall pick last season and, after a slow start, the former Clemson star became a dependable playmaker. They will put the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Collins next to him with the hope that the duo is able to help push the Cardinals back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
”What I liked about (Collins) was everything,” Keim said. ”Size, football acumen, instincts, coverability. This guy has rare and unusual movement skills for a guy who is almost 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds.”
Collins – the Nagruski and Bednarik Award winner in 2020 – wasn’t even sure he’d be drafted heading into last season, but he put up big numbers with 53 tackles, 11 1/2 tackles for a loss, four sacks, four interceptions, two pass breakups and a blocked kick in eight starts. He was a first team AP All-American and also the AAC Player of the Year.
It continues a remarkable rise for the linebacker, who didn’t receive much Division I interest from college coaches while playing in high school in the small town of Hominy, Oklahoma. But he blossomed into a star down the road at Tulsa and brings ample size and athleticism to the position.
Kingsbury said he expects Collins to play immediately even though the Cardinals already have veteran Jordan Hicks at the position.
”Obviously, you don’t take him with the 16th pick unless you expect him to play,” Kingsbury said. ”He isn’t a guy who is moving positions or had his hand down. He played inside linebacker. This isn’t a projection, this is the position he played. We don’t think the learning curve will be very steep.”
He returned two of his interceptions for touchdowns last year, including a 96-yarder in overtime to beat Tulane.
Arizona’s biggest need heading into the draft appeared to be in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. Longtime Cardinals star Patrick Peterson signed with the Minnesota Vikings in the offseason, leaving a sizable hole at the position.
But the draft’s elite cornerbacks were gone early when Jaycee Horn went to the Panthers at No. 8 and Patrick Surtain went to the Broncos one selection later. So the Cardinals went with another linebacker. Keim said the Cardinals talked about trading down but that Collins was rated ”way too high” on their board to pass up.
The pressure is on Keim and Kingsbury to build a playoff-caliber roster around young quarterback Kyler Murray, who is entering the third year of his affordable four-year rookie contract. Arizona looked like it might break its playoff drought last season but lost five of its last seven games to finish at 8-8 and miss the postseason.
The Cardinals have already had a busy offseason, adding several big-name veterans in free agency, including three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. They also signed seven-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, cornerback Malcolm Butler and kicker Matt Prater and traded for three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson.
Arizona will have the No. 49 overall pick in the second round Friday. They dealt their third-round pick to the Raiders in the deal that brought Hudson to the desert. Unless the team makes a trade, the Cardinals won’t make another selection until Saturday with the 160th pick in the fifth round.
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