Why Cardinals' first-round LB Zaven Collins may force out Jordan Hicks

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals appear to be all in on Zaven Collins, but when they drafted the Tulsa linebacker with 16th pick in the first round of last month's NFL draft, they instantly created a log jam at inside linebacker.

On the night they drafted him, general manager Steve Keim said Collins would be the Cardinals' Mike linebacker and would line up next to Isaiah Simmons, last season's first-round pick.

One problem: Where would Jordan Hicks, a veteran leader who has started every game since joining the Cardinals in 2019, play? Keim dodged the question in post-draft news conferences, with coach Kliff Kingsbury only offering: "We will work through it as we go. Obviously, you don't take [Collins] with the 16th pick unless you expect him to play. He isn't a guy who is moving positions."

On Wednesday a report from NFL Network said the Cardinals were allowing Hicks to seek a trade.

If Arizona is able to move Hicks -- or eventually release him if they can't trade him -- it will field an inside linebacking corps with just one year of experience. And Kingsbury seems to be content with that.

"It's not a projection," Kingsbury said. "This is the position [Collins] played. So, I don't think the learning curve will be very steep for this young man. He was valedictorian at his high school, so we expect him to come in and play a lot immediately."

Keim added that when Collins lines up alongside Simmons, it'll be like "having two trees in the middle of the field."

Collins is the third linebacker the Cardinals have drafted in the first round in the past five years. The other two were Simmons and Haason Reddick in 2017. Arizona's other first-round picks during that span were both quarterbacks: Josh Rosen in 2018 and Kyler Murray in 2019.

Keim has stressed that Collins is not a hybrid linebacker like Reddick was and -- to some degree -- that Simmons is. Last season, Simmons played just 77 of his 360 snaps at inside linebacker, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Keim pointed out that Reddick was a pass-rusher in high school and college but was moved to play stacked linebacker in the NFL, which led to a long four years of playing different positions.

That, Keim said, won't be the case with Collins.

"This guy has played stacked linebacker, which is a whole different deal when you see the vision and the ability to play from that second level," Keim said. "I think he's a Mike linebacker. I think he's got all the traits you look for."

Arizona was high on Collins for a while, which led to him landing high on their draft board, Keim said.

"Size, football acumen, instincts, coverability," Keim said. "This guy has got rare and unusual movement skills for a guy who is almost 6-5, 265 pounds. You watched him at Tulsa and the way he covered smaller backs, tight ends, slot receivers at times. You don't see a lot of men like this, this size that have this type of range and athleticism. So, we really liked him."

When he watched Collins, Keim described Collins' ability to direct and communicate with his teammates before the snap as "excellent." Collins has "very high" expectations for himself, and wants to learn "every detail about every formation, about every scheme."

"Those are the big things for me," Collins said. "Those were the big things in college for me. Those are the huge things that I've incorporated into my game and the way I play. I think about those things every down, situational awareness and game awareness. Those things matter a lot to me and I think those matter a lot to organizations, teams, players because everyone at the next level is at a huge physical advantage over everyone else. So that's something that I look forward to and trying to take advantage of."

The plan is for Collins to be a three-down linebacker, but Arizona isn't concerned that he won't be able to handle it.

"I think knowing that he has played middle linebacker in a similar three-down scheme, it won't be completely foreign to him, and that's going to help," Kingsbury said. "He's a quick learner. He's going to get a lot of time on task, a lot of reps."

And Collins doesn't mind the pressure of starting as a rookie.

"I love pressure," he said. "I've felt pressure since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I love it. I love pressure. I loved pressure in college. I love pressure in the NFL. I love it. That's the thing that I strive for. I want to feel that going into the league. I want guys like J.J. Watt, Simmons, Kyler Murray, all those guys, to count on me to do a certain role."