Over the last several months, speculation has arisen regarding who the NY Jets will select in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft. The positions of greatest need appear to be at both cornerback and the offensive line.
However, one position of need that appears to somewhat fly under the radar is linebacker. With the Jets switching from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 scheme, it is essential that the team brings in young linebackers who are versatile and athletic.
The Jets’ current group of linebackers include C. J. Mosley, Blake Cashman, and the recently signed Jarrad Davis. There are also virtual unknowns in Noah Dawkins, Sharif Finch, and Del’Shawn Phillips.
When looking at this group of linebackers, it becomes very clear that the team needs to upgrade at this position every bit as much as they need to upgrade at cornerback and the offensive line.
The question is, will there be a player of value available in the early rounds of the draft to fill the need at linebacker? Enter, Zaven Collins.
At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, the former Tulsa Golden Hurricane possesses not only size and strength but also the speed and versatility necessary to play in coverage and be an every-down linebacker.
These are essential traits that will be needed to play at this position in new head coach Robert Saleh’s 4-3 defensive scheme.
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Zaven Collins’ strengths
Zaven Collins is one of the more understated prospects in this year’s draft. He is a true three-down linebacker and should quickly be able to break into an NFL starting lineup.
In 2020, Collins was arguably one of the best defensive players in all of college football. In eight games he compiled 54 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, 4.0 sacks, four interceptions, two pass deflections, two forced fumbles, a safety, and a fumble recovery.
Oh, and if that’s not enough for you, he took two of those interceptions back for touchdowns. One of which was for a 96-yard return. Collins’ all-around statistics truly represent the “do everything” type of linebacker that he is.
Collins is originally from Hominy, Oklahoma, and played quarterback, safety, and linebacker in high school. Over the course of his high school career, he amassed over 4,000 rushing yards and over 3,000 passing yards. Collins was also the valedictorian of his senior class.
Despite his lofty statistics, Tulsa was the only school to offer Collins a scholarship. However, he made the most of his situation and culminated his three-year college career by winning the Bronko Nagurski Award which is given to the best defensive player in the nation.
In addition, Collins also won the Lombardi Award in 2020 and was both first-team All-ACC and a unanimous All-American.
Zaven Collins is a first-round talent with a well-rounded skill set. His combination of size and mobility is noticeable. He is very scheme-diverse and can provide value to a team against the pass, the run, and along the edge.
Zaven Collins’ weaknesses
As promising a prospect as Collins is, there is still some room for improvement in his game. He is not overly quick and occasionally gets caught upfield and out of position.
Collins doesn’t have every athletic trait in the book, but he can mold his game around his explosiveness and high motor. There is also room for improvement with his consistency when hitting the gaps and making his initial reads.
Zaven Collins is not the small, run-and-chase linebacker that many NFL teams now prefer, but a team that can effectively scheme him well will benefit from selecting him. He projects well in a defense that is flexible and utilizes multiple alignments.
Collins also doesn’t have the elite range or long speed that some linebackers possess, but what he lacks in these specific areas, he makes up for with his physicality, intelligence, and instincts for the game.
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NY Jets prediction
Collins is very effective in making plays in space which will be very important to the Jets in their newly constructed 4-3 defense.
In this type of defensive formation, outside linebackers are expected to move well against the run and cover effectively against the pass. At Tulsa, Collins did a good job of covering both tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.
As it stands right now, C. J. Mosley will most likely play the middle linebacker position (MIKE) and be an every-down linebacker. Jarrard Davis is expected to be more of a rotational type linebacker and play strong-side (SAM).
The Jets are still in need of an every-down linebacker on the weak side (WILL) and Collins could be a great fit for that position.
Collins is a high-character individual who could be an excellent replacement for Jordan Jenkins and also provide help for Carl Lawson when rushing the passer. Collins has unlimited potential and his versatility will allow the Jets to play him all over the field.
As the Jets evolve into their 4-3 defensive scheme, the linebacker position is where you will see the greatest difference. Zaven Collins possesses a rare combination of size and athleticism, and could possibly be the long-term solution for the Jets as they go forward.
He projects as either a late first-round selection or early second-round pick. Ideally, selecting him in the second round would be a steal, but if the Jets feel strongly about his abilities, they could reach slightly and take him in the first round with the 23rd pick.
Collins offers a great blend of size, length, power, football intelligence, and versatility. He can rush the passer or drop into coverage and play in space.
He is the type of player that is hard to come by and the Jets would be wise to strongly consider selecting him in the upcoming draft.