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The Arizona Cardinals haven't learned their first-round linebacker lesson

Johnny Venerable Avatar
November 17, 2021

Stop me if you’ve heard this before:

The Arizona Cardinals drafted a first-round inside linebacker yet refuse to play him.

Zaven Collins, the 16th overall selection in last April’s NFL Draft is currently a backup to journeymen Tanner Vallejo. This is after Arizona Cardinal general manager Steve Keim openly stated that Collins would be a permanent fixture amongst the team’s starting defense during his rookie season.

“You don’t take him with the 16th pick unless you expect him to play,” Keim famously said post draft.

“We expect him to come in and play a lot immediately.”

Fast forward 10 games into the season and the former All-American out of Tulsa is averaging a minuscule 19 snaps per game. Compare that to fellow rookie first-rounder Micah Parsons in Dallas, who went a mere six picks ahead of Collins, and the former Penn State standout LB is averaging a robust 48.2 snaps per game. Unlike Collins, Parsons has been allowed to work through his mistakes en route to becoming the front-runner for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Yet if you look at the advanced metrics via Pro Football Focus, Cardinal rookie Zaven Collins has netted a season grade of 71.7 compared to that of Parsons who currently sits just above him at 73.3. This is ever the more frustrating when you consider the large discrepancy in playing time between the two rookies.

Like Collins, Parsons is not a finished product but is however effectively utilized at multiple positions by Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. With six sacks already this season, Parsons has been deployed as a bull rush end while also seeing time on early downs as a run stuffing force. Compare that to Collins, who was PFF’s highest rated college linebacker ever graded in coverage, and the rookie has essentially been regulated to sub-packages every other series.

Dallas as an organization has never been afraid to implement young inside linebackers dating back to Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and now Parsons.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, appear to be allergic to the theory that a stud college linebacking prospect could translate early at a position where the NFL learning curve isn’t as steep as others.

Much like quarterback, the position of inside linebacker requires repetition in order to find a rhythm. Collins was a former Academic All-American at the University of Tulsa but that alone won’t help him decipher complex NFL offenses without consistent on-field exposure.

Zaven Collins needs more than just film room sessions and scout team duties.

This entire scenario is eerily similar to that of Isaiah Simmons’ rookie campaign, in which the 8th overall pick was forced to sit behind the likes of Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell. Simmons was routinely lauded by the front office as a “unicorn” type of prospect yet inexcusably averaged 23 snaps per game. Unlike Collins, Simmons was regulated to mop-up duties for an Arizona Cardinal defense that wasn’t a top 10 unit. A strong argument can be made that Simmons lack of legitimate reps last season completely derailed his early development as a pro.

Now in his second season with the team, the former Clemson product is still learning the intricacies of the pro game which can occasionally lead to poor performances like the one we saw this past Sunday against Carolina. Hampering Collins’ development in the form of reduced snaps, like Simmons, will only delay the eventual breakout needed to put this Cardinal defense over the top.

At the writing of this article, Arizona’s run defense ranks amongst the worst in pro football at 25th overall. Those efforts can’t be remedied by Vance Joseph’s continued emphasis preferring the undersized Vallejo over a blue chip prospect like Collins. Joseph, who has been mostly fantastic calling the Cardinals defense this season, has a major issue when it comes to allowing his young inside linebackers to grow with live reps.

While Joseph allows rookie CB Marco Wilson to work through his development on the fly, for whatever reason, the same grace is never given to Arizona’s rookie linebackers. Instead, Joseph remains staunchly committed to proven veterans no matter how diminishing of a skill set they possess.

A once afterthought following the selection Collins, veteran Jordan Hicks has once again logged the most snaps at the position on the entire Cardinal roster. While his play this season has been commendable, the Cardinals made a commitment to both Simmons and Collins in an effort to strengthen their front-seven. In a perfect world, Joseph would be able to blend the elite coverage play of Simmons in the form of a hybrid role with both Collins and Hicks cemented in as the primary three-down inside backers.

Much like how the Cardinals are openly resting Kyler Murray and his injured ankle with their sites set on the bigger picture, the same approach needs to be taken with that of Collins and his development. Rookies are going to make mistakes but in the end, based on your predraft evaluation, they are also likely to offer a much larger upside when compared to what was already in house.

Unlike Simmons, Collins was labeled as a more polished prospect at the position coming into the NFL. He largely called the defense for Tulsa while spending the majority of his snaps in the box (logging 387 at linebacker). Those efforts led to folks around the league to compare Collins to that of a “poor man’s Brian Urlacher“. With all due respect to Tanner Vallejo, the Arizona Cardinals and their defense will never reach it’s fullest potential until their once prized first-round pick is permanently inserted into the starting lineup.

Perhaps Zaven Collins is still hampered by a shoulder injury suffered against the Packers. If that is the case, then like Murray, he shouldn’t be active on Sundays. But when I see big #25 at 6’4, 260 pounds in all his glory stand on the sideline while Arizona’s defense is gashed on the ground, there’s no rational given by Joseph that will suffice.

Play the kid and prosper.

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