It came as somewhat of a surprise when the Arizona Cardinals selected Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins 16th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Cardinals were widely expected to look for a cornerback in the first round of the draft, with wide receiver also being suggested as a possibility for general manager Steve Keim. Perhaps more shocking though, is that the addition of Zaven Collins means Collins will essentially replace current starter Jordan Hicks. Since the Cardinals drafted Zaven Collins will certainly be impacted. Here’s how.
Arizona Cardinals Drafted Zaven Collins, Here’s How That Impact Jordan Hicks’ Future
The selection of Collins marks the second time in two years that the Cardinals have used their top pick on an inside linebacker. Last year, the Cardinals selected Isaiah Simmons with the eighth overall pick. Heading into the draft, the position was not expected to be a concern, especially not a top target. Simmons was projected to make a leap in his second professional season, starting alongside the veteran Hicks. Now, with the addition of Collins, the future of Jordan Hicks in a now-overcrowded Arizona Cardinals linebacker room is up in the air.
Best Player Available: Why the Cardinals Selected Zaven Collins
Zaven Collins was an underground prospect heading into the draft. Projections and mock drafts commonly saw the Tulsa standout off the board in the 20s. Yet, the talent evidenced in his time at Tulsa is worthy of his lofty draft spot.
Recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Lombardi Award, Collins was a gamechanger as a collegiate player. In a 6’5″, 267 pound frame, Collins is an imposing physical specimen, with great athleticism to go with his size. Drawing comparisons to Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher, Collins has demonstrated an instinct that compliments his physical gifts. Down in the box, he is a sideline-to-sideline presence, confident shooting the gap and engaging with ball carriers.
Collins is a quarterback’s nightmare on the second level. The most impressive of his stellar stats from 2020 were his four interceptions to go along with the four sacks. This is perhaps the best indicator on paper of his versatility. He is as comfortable dropping back into space as he is patrolling the line of scrimmage. Lining up the tandem of Collins and Isaiah Simmons is a mouth-watering prospect for the Cardinals defense.
Why Zaven Collins Will Replace Jordan Hicks
Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury were bullish about the immediate future of their top draftee. Kingsbury was quick to note that ‘you don’t draft a guy that high to not play him’. Keim was even more aggressive, openly stating that Collins will be the team’s starting mic’d linebacker, alongside Isaiah Simmons.
That spot is currently occupied by Jordan Hicks. Hicks, a two-year team captain, who regularly tops the Cardinals tackling leaderboards, has been a constant fixture in the starting lineup since his arrival from the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019.
Hicks is a traditional scrape-and-fill linebacker. He has solid instincts and secure tackling ability at the second level. However, most of Hicks’ best work is done at the second level and the second level only. He isn’t an assertive playmaker and lacks some athleticism to be effective in multiple facets of defensive play. This is most notable in pass coverage, where Hicks struggles tremendously. In 2019, Hicks was targeted by opposing tight ends throughout the year; an inability to cover the tight ends was the Cardinals biggest defensive issue that year.
Collins can be everything that Hicks both is and isn’t. Although young, he has shown an intelligence in the box that not only defends against offensive progress, but allows him to consistently threaten the offensive backfield on both pass and rush attempts. In a system as aggressive as Vance Joseph’s, Collins can be a downhill wrecker. Most significantly though, will be the addition of Zaven Collins’ coverage ability. Combined with Simmons, the Cardinals will have a duo with the potential to erase the middle of the field. Collins has the open field discipline, ball skills and return ability to be the explosive playmaker that Jordan Hicks is not.
What the Cardinals Can Do With Jordan Hicks
The Cardinals have to quickly work out what they have in Zaven Collins. If Collins has the day-one starter potential that Keim professes, then, unless Isaiah Simmons is moved around significantly, Hicks looks set for a backup role. Having a backup with Hicks’ ability is an attractive prospect. However, with a cap hit of $6 million in 2021, his price could outweigh his role. Without a restructured contract or clarification on how Arizona’s linebackers will line up, Hicks is too expensive to have sat on the bench.
Hicks may not offer exactly what the Cardinals want in their scheme, but he is still an NFL-caliber linebacker. The Cardinals could look to move Hicks and his salary. He will turn only 29 this summer, making him a still serviceable veteran. One of the more notable things about the Cardinals draft class is the lack of a top-level cornerback. In this sense, there could be a conversation involving Hicks and a trade for another top NFL cornerback. A possibility would be a trade with the New England Patriots as they are reportedly continuing to shop Stephon Gilmore, Steve Keim could have some elite options to explore. Hicks could go from a starting fixture on the Cardinals defense to a valuable trade piece as the Cardinals look to round out their roster post-draft.