NFL Comparison: Six of Anthony Barr plus a half-dozen of Tremaine Edmunds
Perhaps my favorite player in the entirey of the 2021 NFL Draft, I fully believe that the reason you don’t see linebacker Zaven Collins from Tulsa University ranked as highly on other Big Boards as you do on mine is because don’t know what to make of the paradoxical juxtaposition he presents: the highly unusual (in a good way) player possessing a “throwback body” combined with the modern skillset to thrive in today’s NFL; put much more succinctly, he’s a big guy who plays like a small guy (again, in a good way).
The winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (the best defensive player in the nation according to sports writers) and the Chuck Bednarik Award (effectively the college football equivalent of the “Defensive Player of the Year” award), a lot of smart people will tell you that Collins was the best football player in any game he played in this season. You could also make a compelling argument that Collins put the entire University of Tulsa team on his back and led them to being one of the best defenses in the AAC, while earning a spot in the AAC Championship game.
The do-it-all linebacker filled stat columns in 2020 in a manner that would make the triple-double machines in the NBA proud: 10 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, an interception, and two passes defended in Tulsa’s upset over Central Florida; 5 tackles, a half-tackle for a loss, a forced fumble, and a pick-6 against South Florida; 15 tackles, a half-tackle for a loss, and a 96-yard pick-6 against Tulane; three sacks in the season-opener against Oklahoma State (the only game Tulsa lost last season); six tackles, two tackles for a loss, and a sack against 19th-ranked SMU — and that’s not even mentioning the game-interception off quarterback Shane Buechele in Tulsa’s comeback win over SMU. In the highest of high-pressure, high-visibility situations, Collins would simply find a way to make a play for his team.
Collins’ gaudy stat lines are a direct product of his combination of tremendous football instincts, the classic “lock on and destroy” modus operandi you’d expect from a linebacker, and a fluidity and closing speed that you just don’t see from a guy that’s the size of NFL defensive ends. Time and time again, he’s shown an outstanding ability to quickly shoot through gaps or slice through creases in the offensive line, and put the runner on his ass with authority. He reads the way the offensive linemen are blocking almost in the same way the opposing running back should be: patiently waiting for the blocks to develop, and sifting through the trash while using the shortest possible distance to get from point A (where he is) to point B (where the guy with the ball is). One of my favorite things about Collins was the way he maintained disciplined with his gap assignments, rarely “taking the cheese” when the opposing offense would run misdirection-based plays.
In Tulsa’s 3–3–5 defensive alignment, Collins was very frequently asked to drop into coverage. When doing so, he’s so fluid and clean in his backpedal, covering so much ground in a way that’s completely unheard of from a guy with his size. While playing in space, Collins again demonstrates his superior football instincts, especially as he would read a quarterback’s eyes and jump into the passing window to create PBU’s — if not interceptions.
Too many people have pigeonholed Collins as an edge rusher because of his size and physical tools. And to their credit, there is certainly an upside to putting him on the edge and rushing him out of a two-point stance. He has shown flashes of being able to get a burst off the line and bend the edge. However, he’s still rather underdeveloped in this area, and I see this as more of a “he can do this” versus “he should do this all the time” skill.
But the bigger concern about Collins’ game, according to NFL scouts and teams, is the fact that he’s not really a “twitchy” or explosive mover in space. At a position like linebacker, where you have to go from standstill to pursuit in less than an instant, Collins is not really a guy who can go from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye; he’s more of a straight-line runner who needs a second or so to accelerate. While he has routinely shown a cat-like quickness in “click and close” situations, NFL teams have (and will) express questions about Collins’ agility, change of direction, and overall lateral movement speed. How Collins fares in the drills that test those skills (like the 3-cone drill) will definitely be worth watching.
Further, detractors who want to nitpick at Collins’ game could point to the fact that he’s what you’d call a classic “hair on fire”-type of linebacker who just blurs up and down the field. Collins plays more like a sniper: when he sees his shot, he takes it — often hitting his target with lethal precision. However, when Collins does get caught in the blocking trash, he’s not always the best at finding his way out.
Still, as the NFL seeks defenders who can provide them the multiplicity and versatility to match the same from opposing offenses, Collins is exactly that type of player: someone who can walk into the league and be a 3-down linebacker from day one — be it as a SAM linebacker in a 4–3, or one of the inside linebacker spots in a 3–4 alignment, but certainly not limited to either of those spots alone. Rather, the way he could line up on the edge and rush the passer, play downhill and shoot the gaps in the run game, and make so many plays in space makes him an intriguing chess piece for a defensive coordinator creative enough to best harness his diverse skillset. ■