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Zaven Collins Working On Being Cardinals' Inside Man

Linebacker wants to take step forward after Hicks' departure

Linebacker Zaven Collins goes through a recent Phase Two walkthrough.
Linebacker Zaven Collins goes through a recent Phase Two walkthrough.

Zaven Collins took his spot in the middle of the Cardinals' defense, his defensive linemen in front of him, a menacing offensive line of trash cans facing them on the line of scrimmage.

There is no real offense yet – Phase Two on-field work prevents that. The defensive lineup is a mix of roster bodies, since some players are still rehabbing injuries and others have chosen to work out on their own during this voluntary time.

But Collins, the Cardinals' 2021 first-round pick, is right where he will be when the regular season starts in September, manning the starting spot at inside linebacker.

"We're not in a hurry right now, but not laid back either," Collins said. "Coach (Vance Joseph) said it's a time to work on things but have fun with things, because you're not crunched for time. You're here to learn and have fun doing it.

"Anything that presents a problem to us, we just speak up about it and we have all the time in the world to get it figured it out. We have two days to figure out something as opposed to 20 minutes (in season)."

It will be the second straight season Collins will have been tabbed the starter next to Isaiah Simmons at this point in the year. Of course, last year, veteran Jordan Hicks had supplanted the inexperienced Collins by training camp's end, leading to an uneven-at-best rookie year for Collins.

Collins played 20 defensive snaps in only six games, and five of those came in the season's first seven games. Including the playoff game, Collins played just 38 defensive snaps in the Cardinals' last nine contests.

But when it came to his Pro Football Focus grade, Collins was solid in those first seven games, getting a good mark of at least 72.5 in four of them. As the season went on, the confidence from the coaching staff lessened.

"You get to learn a lot of stuff (as a rookie)," Collins said. "There were a lot of ups and downs trying to understand how everything works and staying level-headed. It was hard but it was something you push through."

The Hicks-Collins relationship was always good, even if Hicks had been unhappy how the depth chart unfolded after Collins' selection in the draft. Collins said it was a "blessing" to have been mentored by Hicks, to learn how to study and how to practice.

But the Cardinals released Hicks this offseason – he subsequently signed with the Vikings – and the lane is now cleared for Collins, no matter what.

"It feels good to get past that and start fresh," Collins said.

The Cardinals have never wavered that Collins will join Simmons has a productive starting inside tandem, but this season will be a test.

"Zaven, it's one of those situations where it's always tough whenever you have to be a rookie and try to call the defense and some of the challenges that it presents," GM Steve Keim said. "But I think both those guys are going to be tremendous players."

Just about a year ago, Collins was celebrating his first-round status, breaking into tears when his name was announced -- "All the emotions … it still gives me goosebumps," he said.

The expectations were high. Collins knows that, and he knows everyone else is counting on him to fulfill that promise.

"You try not to look at it," Collins said. "Any athlete in the NFL would agree that the media or whoever says anything about you doesn't really apply the kind of pressure on you that you would yourself.

"You expect a lot out of yourself. That's a good thing and a bad thing. Your own mind can be very troublesome sometimes. It's a roller coaster."

Images from the first day of voluntary Phase Two work in 2022.

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