There are always intriguing prospects in any draft class. But it’s been some time since we have had a prospect quite as intriguing — interesting — as linebacker Zaven Collins out of Tulsa.
A year ago you could be forgiven if you had no clue who Collins was. But after a 2020 season which saw him rack up 54 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, 4.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 passes defensed, and 4 interceptions — in just 8 games — on the way to winning the 2020 Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik awards as the nation’s best defensive player, Collins is on everyone’s radar.
But that isn’t just what makes him interesting. At a hair under 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, Collins has the size which harkens back to the big downhill “thumper” linebackers of yore, but the athleticism to play a modern “off-ball” role. His athleticism shouldn’t be much of a surprise, coming to Tulsa as a skinny 6-foot-4, 220-pound linebacker who was a gymnast as a kid and kept his movement skills as he added weight. Likewise, his impressive football IQ is based in an impressive off-field resume. Collins was his high school class’ valedictorian and a pre-med major at Tulsa. All of that should make him a coveted prospect for the NFL
Just how good can Collins be at the next level?
Prospect: Zaven Collins
Games Watched: vs. Oklahoma State (2019), vs. Oklahoma State (2020), vs. UCF (2020), vs. USF (2020)
Games Played: 32
Tackles For a loss: 25.0
Forced Fumbles: 3
Passes Defensed: 8
Games Played: 8
Tackles For a loss: 7.5
Forced Fumbles: 2
Passes Defensed: 2
Best: Size, athleticism, space play, versatility, football IQ
Worst: Block shedding, absolute athleticism
Projection: A starting outside linebacker with scheme versatility.
Tusla outside linebacker Zaven Collins has a rare blend of size and athleticism for the position at any level of football.
Collins typically aligned as the outside linebacker on the weak side of the offense in Tulsa’s 335 “Stack Dime” defense. He has a very high football IQ, which shows up in all phases of the play, starting with good communication with his teammates before the snap.
Collins is an exceptional athlete, particularly for his size, moving fluidly in space as an off-ball linebacker. He quickly gets good depth on his drops into zone coverage, hitting his landmarks with little wasted effort and showing good range once in coverage. He also has the ability to run with most tight ends and running backs in coverage, and even some receivers. Collins keeps his eyes in the backfield when in zone coverage and does a great job of reading the quarterback’s eyes from the second level. He allows the quarterback to lead him to the play and uses his length and closing burst to arrive in a hurry. Collins has good ball skills and his sheer size makes him disruptive at the catch point.
He is a willing run defender, diagnosing running plays quickly and coming downhill to fill a gap or pursue from the backside without hesitation. Collins speed and explosiveness allow him to beat blockers to a spot, while his length allows him to make plays outside of his frame. Likewise, he has the athletic traits to be a threat as a pass rusher, seeing and exploiting rushing lanes well when asked to blitz.
Collins struggles to take on blockers, particularly for such a big linebacker. He can lose leverage when taking on offensive linemen, making it easy for them to knock him off his rush or out of a gap. Likewise, he needs to improve his hand usage when attempting to shed blockers. He is capable of standing blockers up and setting a firm edge in run support, but can get hung up on them and struggle to make plays once blocked.
Overall Grade: 8.5 - This prospect has a rare combination of mental and athletic traits, and should be a starter immediately, though he will need some development to reach his full potential.
Zaven Collins projects as a starting linebacker with scheme diversity in the NFL.
Tulsa primarily used him as a weakside linebacker in their stack dime (also known as “335” or “Air Raid Killer”) defense. Outside linebackers in that defense need to wear a number of different hats, with duties ranging from EDGE defender to true off-ball outside linebacker, and occasionally even box safety. Collins performed all of those responsibilities well, and improved seemingly every game of his college career. He is an excellent athlete, and not just for his size, with the range to cover half the field, track down ball carriers or spy quarterbacks from the second level, and the speed to blow past blockers as a blitzer.
He doesn’t quite have the short-area quickness of a true off-ball WILL linebacker who is 20 or 30 pounds lighter, and that can show up on occasion. However, his ability to execute such a wide range of responsibilities is nothing but impressive.
The most glaring weakness in Collins’ game is how he deals with blockers. He has a tendency to play like a smaller linebacker around the line of scrimmage, and not stack and shed blockers like expected from a 260 pound linebacker. Instead, he appears to try to rely on his athleticism to run around, or past, blockers and doesn’t fare too well once engaged.
While that could be a red flag for other prospects, Collins’ intangibles suggest that he should be able to remedy the deficiency with NFL coaching.
Collins has managed to transform himself from a relatively unknown three-star recruit to one of the nations’ best defensive players in a year. The arc of his growth suggests that he is only getting better and his best football is likely still ahead of him.