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How the Arizona Cardinals' investment in first-round linebackers raises expectations

TEMPE, Ariz. -- On the first day of training camp, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons turned to his rookie counterpart, first-round pick Zaven Collins, and told him they could be as good as -- if not better than -- the league's best inside linebacker tandem, Tampa Bay's Lavonte David and Devin White.

Simmons quickly added, it would all depend on how much work Collins was willing to put in. Collins smiled and laughed. It was, to say the least, a lot to process.

"I didn't know what I was getting myself into Day 1, I guess," Collins said. "I was the new kid on the block. You can't say it to me on Day 1.

"But, now, we do expect that."

When the Cardinals selected Collins with the No. 16 pick of the 2021 NFL draft it increased their investment at a position in which they selected Simmons at No. 8 overall one year before.

The pair have spent the past few months getting to know each other on and off the field and have quickly hit it off. They sit next to each other in meetings and film sessions. During camp, they were basically inseparable, having breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Even on weekends away from the team, they were together.

"We hang out as much as we can when we can," Collins said. "We're always together, so we're pretty good friends."

Simmons didn't think that would happen at first.

"I thought he was gonna be a weirdo but turns out we're actually like really good friends," Simmons said.

A weirdo?

"You all saw his interviews," Simmons said, referring to Collins' draft-day news conference when he seemed nervous. "I just wasn't sure."

Said Collins: "That wasn't a proud moment."

The way Simmons described it to Collins: he thought his inside linebacker partner was a square. The initial impression Simmons had of Collins quickly dissipated and evolved.

"That's my guy now," Simmons said.

Simmons calls them "compatible" on the field due, in large part, to their off-field relationship. They talk "as much as possible," Collins said. It all happens in the moment of the play. They tell each other what they think is going to happen, who's going to cover who and who's doing what.

They've also realized their own limits, to a degree, during camp. For example, if Collins is matched up with a faster player than Simmons, he'll ask Simmons, who ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, to switch.

"Obviously, I'm going to let Isaiah go cover the faster dude," Collins said. "Like, 'Zay, go take him, please. I'm standing here.'"

Arizona didn't waste much time with Collins, naming him the Week 1 starting middle linebacker long before training camp began. It was a rare move but not unprecedented, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. Helping ease Arizona's concerns about making the move were Collins' intangibles and tangibles: He's 6-foot-4, runs a 4.4 or 4.5, and has a high football IQ.

Collins feels comfortable with basically everything in front of him -- from the playbook to the physical demands of the position to the overall sense of being an NFL player. That doesn't mean everything has gone swimmingly. He's still a rookie and has executed a busted coverage or relayed a call wrong.

On one play in camp, Collins messed up and covered the wrong player, leaving him in a two-on-one with cornerback Robert Alford while the player he was supposed to defend roamed wide open.

Alford let him have it on the field and then apologized after.

"It's fine because I know he was just trying to get me better and we fixed it," Collins said. "It hasn't happened again."

If Collins makes a wrong call, which has happened throughout camp, it's up to the defense to run whatever is called, said safety Budda Baker.

"We always talk about if we're all wrong, we're all right," Baker said.

Mistakes will be part of having a rookie call the defense, he added.

"It's definitely a little challenging sometimes getting those young bucks to listen, just because you know they want to be so right all the time and they don't want to make mistakes," Baker said. "I gotta let them know that it's OK to make mistakes right now, you're learning, but just make sure you don't make the same mistake twice."

Simmons and Collins have showed flashes of brilliance in the preseason. Part of Collins' development will hinge on confidence, both his and that of the coaching staff. That means he won't be playing with a short leash.

"You can't play him out there and he makes a couple mistakes and you bench the kid," Joseph said. "It may be a time where it's too much, where I can save him for a series or two, and that's OK. No, but if he's ready to play Week 1, he's going to play, and if he struggles, we got to figure it out for him, but right now he's the Mike linebacker."