The Steelers are going to have a lot of needs this offseason. With a tight salary cap and potential looming retirements, the Steelers, on paper, are going to be nowhere near as complete of a team in 2021 as they were in 2020. That lends itself to a lot of theories on just who could be the Steelers pick at No. 24 overall in the first round.
While most have a running back or offensive tackle heading to Pittsburgh, a popular pick recently has been Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins.
A mammoth 6-foot-4, 260-pound linebacker, Collins, who is listed as an inside linebacker by some outlets, is almost more reminiscent of an outside linebacker in the Steelers scheme. That is a large man to be playing off the ball for most of his snaps. That makes Collins a relatively unique prospect in the grand scheme of things. There is no one quite like him in this draft and there have not been many guys like him in the past few drafts.
The uniqueness of Collins all comes down to his traits. He is not a plodder linebacker who is just a big hitter. No, Collins is going to be a versatile, three-down linebacker in the NFL. For his size, that is unique, and his athleticism is striking in a way that allows him to maintain several roles. Just to showcase his athleticism and range, take this play against South Florida on for size.
Collins somehow comes all the way from the opposite hash to chase down the quarterback and make the tackle. It is effortless in how he does. This is not normal for 260-pound linebackers in space. The good news is when working from sideline-to-sideline, it is clear that Collins is fluid in space and can maintain his explosiveness and acceleration. The in-game athleticism is striking from Collins. Expect very good numbers from him at Tulsa’s Pro Day on all fronts.
The thing that makes Collins such a great fit for the Steelers in particular, however, is his pass-rushing chops. No, not just in the vein of Vince Williams where he is a great blitzer from the inside linebacker spot. Collins has a legitimate ability to be an edge rusher and clown tackles. He did it more than one would expect at Tulsa this season.
Collins can stand up in the Steelers 3-4 as an outside linebacker just like he does on this play. He gives the tackle a simple swat of the hand and uses his flexibility to dip around the edge to get this sack. Plays like this make Collins a unique projection because it is clear he has pass-rushing chops. The hand usage, explosive first step, and bend all showcase that Collins could actually be a productive edge rusher in the NFL.
The one last thing to showcase is Collins’s natural instincts from his inside linebacker spot. He has great football intelligence. Just showcasing this screen here, Collins keys on the running back coming across the formation and then the linemen initially starting to move in space. He does a fantastic job to avoid all of that traffic and make the tackle in the backfield for a loss on the play.
These are plays that should showcase just why Collins can fit into the Steelers scheme like a glove. Envisioning a role for Collins is natural. He can play next to Devin Bush on most downs as the Mack linebacker in this scheme. On other downs, Collins can spell Alex Highsmith or T.J. Watt as a rotational outside linebacker. He is built like an edge rusher and has the skills to be one, so the Steelers may as well use them.
The Steelers have a need at coverage linebacker. Just looking back on their last three playoff losses, the lack of a second coverage linebacker is what did them in every time. Pairing Bush and Collins together, coverage linebacker is simply no longer an issue to be worried about. They are both three-down, highly athletic linebackers who can cover just about anyone on the field.
Therein lies why Collins makes sense to be the first-round pick. He fits in smoothly as a 3-4 linebacker on all fronts. The hybrid nature of his frame and play style makes him perfect for a Bud Dupree-esque role when the Steelers decide to pull out their 3-3-5 package as well. For a player comparison, think of Collins in the mold of someone like Kyle Van Noy.
All of this does not mean that Collins will be the pick at No. 24. But it would be foolish to discredit this possibility. The Steelers lack of another coverage linebacker has been an Achilles heel for too long, and Collins can fill in the blank void as outside linebacker depth, too. If this pick happens, the fit makes all the sense in the world.