Bold decisions at inside linebacker could bite the Cardinals in 2021

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Zaven Collins
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Zaven Collins /

The Arizona Cardinals front office has placed an inordinate amount of pressure on opening-round draft choice Zaven Collins.

When the Arizona Cardinals selected Zaven Collins during the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the club’s hierarchy boldly proclaimed that there’d be no learning curve for the highly-touted rookie.

While a boatload of professional football experts praised the organization for the pick, veteran Cards linebacker Jordan Hicks couldn’t have been happy.

After all, Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury told Collins moments after the selection that the 22-year-old should be ready to play right away. No matter that the individual he would be replacing (Hicks) had registered an eye-popping 268 tackles for the Redbirds over the past two seasons.

In fairness to Hicks, Collins should’ve been told that he’d be given every opportunity to “earn” the starting inside linebacker position. Doubling up on their investment, general manager Steve Keim even gave Hicks permission to seek a trade partner for his services. Basically, the Cardinals are ready to send the veteran packing without knowing whether the youthful Collins has what it takes to handle the job or not.

Did the Arizona Cardinals back themselves into a corner by handing Zaven Collins the starting job so quickly?

It’s blatantly clear that the Cards better be right in their assessment of Collins. Actually, the inside linebacker who’ll line up right next to him (Isaiah Simmons) is not a proven commodity either. Last year’s first-round choice certainly showed glimpses of potential, but to say that Simmons is a “sure-thing” at this point would be stretching things a bit.

There’s also a very good chance that the franchise has already lost the dependable Hicks. The 28-year-old was noticeably absent from all three of Arizona’s OTA practices. It would not be surprising in the least if Hicks feels disrespected by what Keim and company have done.

The team’s backup situation at inside linebacker (if Hicks moves on) is not good. Behind Simmons and Collins are names like Tanner Vallejo, Ezekiel Turner, and Evan Weaver. There’s some solid special teams talent among that trio, but starters they are not.

Perhaps Keim should consider bringing in another linebacker with experience. De’Vondre Campbell (last season’s starter) would’ve been a fine choice, but the tackling machine signed with the Green Bay Packers earlier this month.

There are other free agents who are still available, including Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright. The 31-year-old has played on the edge throughout most of his career, but did log some time in the middle when he first entered the league.

Some other options that the Cardinals could look at include B.J. Goodson, Todd Davis, and Tahir Whitehead.

In a perfect world, Collins and Simmons will have fantastic campaigns and will live up to the hype that is bestowed upon opening-round draft choices.

Arizona’s defensive performance in 2021, and playoff hopes for that matter, could depend on it.

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(Statistics provided by Pro Football Reference)