The Future: 2021 NFL Draft Prospects Zaven Collins
Zaven Collins is one of the top linebackers in this class and is coming off of a year where he won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik award both of which are awarded to the best collegiate defender in the nation. He might be the most balanced linebacker in this class when it comes to his ability to defend the run, rush the passer, and drop back in coverage. I have him as a first-round talent but I could see him falling into the late first round, early second round and be an absolute steal for a team in need of a middle of the field presence on defense. Below I'll go into depth on his ability against the run at the point of attack (POA), how he plays against the outside run, his zone/man coverage, his ball skills, and his ability to blitz/rush the passer.
vs Run at POA- In the run game he is an absolute bruiser, at 6'4", 260lbs he is a very big linebacker who brings his pads behind every hit. Against runs between the tackles, he diagnoses well and shoots gaps aggressively. He is very strong when engaging a lineman at the point of attack to get off of blocks and get to the ball carrier. From 2019 to 2020 he has improved on his ability to shed blocks and consistently get off of blocks. When he gets to the ballcarrier he is an excellent tackler. He breaks down, wraps up, and consistently brings the runner to the ground. He has also shown that he can be a very big hitter at times.
Outside Run- Collins has shown that he has the athleticism to play sideline to sideline against the run game. He takes very good angles to meet the ballcarrier in space and again he does a good job of closing space, breaking down, and wrapping up. In this aspect of his game, his lateral movement is absurd. With his size, you wouldn't expect him to be able to move laterally very well. He is smooth, quick, and fast to be able to move laterally and make plays outside of the tackles.
Zone Coverage/Man Coverage- I think this is where he separates himself from other prospects in this draft. When he drops back in zone coverage he is elite for a linebacker. He does an excellent job of reading the quarterback's eyes and staying in passing lanes. There are times where it looks like he is "hiding" behind the line and just when the quarterback thinks he has an open lane, Collins can jump the pass and make a play on the ball. When tasked with playing underneath coverage he again reads the quarterback's eyes very well as well as diagnosing route combinations to be able to play the ball. He wasn't tasked with playing man coverage very often but based on his athletic profile he should hold his on in having to cover tight ends and running backs at the next level.
Ball Skills- This is another area where he is elite for a linebacker. When he drops back into the zone he always seems to be around the ball. In the 2020 season, he was able to make some game-clinching plays in multiple games. Against Tulane, he had a pick-six in double overtime to win the game and against SMU he was able to make a game-clinching interception with under two minutes left to win the game. He has also shown that he can play along the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher and have the awareness to play the ball when he knows he isn't going to be able to get to the quarterback.
Pass Rush/Blitz- I look at Collins as more of a Blitzer than a pass rusher. When tasked with rushing the passer he uses his size and athleticism to win and he doesn't possess any pass rush moves to win against linemen. When tasked with blitzing though he does a really good job of timing his blitz, whether he has to pause for a second before blitzing or wait until the quarterback breaks contain he has a really good sense/feel for when he should blitz. He also does an excellent job of finishing at the quarterback.
After watching a few games of Collins I was blown away by how well he moves at his size, especially when dropping back into pass coverage. Other than Micah Parsons I wouldn't put any other linebacker above him and I would say Collins and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are at the same level. He will be a three-down backer at the next level who can make an instant impact on any defense.