It may appear redundant for the Arizona Cardinals to select an inside linebacker in the 2021 NFL Draft after taking Isaiah Simmons in 2020, but the position group still looks a bit thin.
As of this posting, De’Vondre Campbell remains a free agent after taking on a big role last year. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks is under contract for two more seasons, but after he and Simmons, there’s not much experience.
Tanner Vallejo has played well as a backup, Zeke Turner is also back and 2020 sixth-round pick Evan Weaver got cut before the season and remains relegated to the practice squad. Terrance Smith, Jamal Carter and Donald Rutledge also remain under contract.
To be clear: Cornerback and receiver are among the position groups with more likely options and of higher priority for the Cardinals. Using a first-round pick to improve at inside backer would indeed be a surprise, but as with the Simmons pick, there’s a good argument for snapping up elite athletes who see and feel the game at a high level.
There are intriguing talents in the middle of the first round if the Cardinals hold at No. 16 or slide up or down via trade.
Micah Parsons, Penn State
Does he fit what the Cardinals need and do? Maybe not perfectly.
Would he give Arizona’s other versatile players the ability to shift around more? Yes.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Parsons would make Cardinals general manager Steve Keim think if he somehow fell into the teens.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph showed last year that he is capable of scheming up exotic blitz packages and utilizing players by their strengths, even if other players at their positions feel a little redundant. Drafting Parsons could give Joseph more flexibility with his inside and outside linebacker mix, something that helped the Cardinals a year ago when Chandler Jones went down with a season-ending biceps injury.
Parsons is a ready-to-go blitzer with the talent to grow into a three-down middle backer, though he’s far from the natural cover man as is a player like Simmons.
Parsons sat out the pandemic-impacted season but in 2019 posted 109 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles and five passes defensed.
Parsons, who was a prized recruit as a pass rusher coming out of high school, is still ironing out some of finer points of play processing on the second level but his freakish combination of size and explosiveness allow him to explode and drive into gaps when he sees the play develop and as a result he’s a persistent winner of beating ball carriers and blockers to the spot between the tackles. Parsons is an impact player on third downs, which significantly boosts his value to pro teams and masks some of the inexperiences of transitioning to stack linebacker. He’s a dynamic blitzer and has the versatility to rush against offensive linemen and claim victories to get home to the quarterback.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame
At 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, Owusu-Koramoah slots in as more of a true off-ball linebacker compared to Parsons. He’s got the athleticism and the nimbleness of a safety to take on man-to-man coverage duties or chase down an edge-bouncing running back, but his instincts and light weight might be a concern if he’s being projected as a future middle linebacker.
Owusu-Koramoah does have an aggressiveness about him that will help him make big plays. Harnessing that and adding weight to be more physical getting off blocks and getting downhill to hit gaps against the run will increase expectations about his potential.
For Notre Dame in 2020, he made 61 combined tackles (11 for loss) and three forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks, one pick and three pass breakups.
From NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein:
He has the athletic ability to handle man-cover duties on a variety of positions and his rush potential as a wild-card blitzer bolsters his value. There is still a need to harness and control his energetic playing style and his field discipline is still a work in progress. However, his athletic traits, versatility and playmaking demeanor give him a chance to become the most impactful defender in this draft.
Zaven Collins, Tulsa
You might see Collins clock in at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds and think, wait, he’s an edge rusher who’s been misplaced here. Indeed, he played as an off-ball backer.
Over eight games in 2020, Collins produced 54 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions.
The Tulsa product was a true thumper in the second level, a player who can drop and has enough speed despite his frame. A 4.65-second 40-yard dash at his pro day didn’t necessarily help Collins prove he has the necessary speed to continue playing solely as a second-level defender, and now he’s got to fight the NFL trend that is shying away from bulky middle linebackers.
Or he’s got to prove that he can convert into a three-down edge rusher.
Maybe in a flexible system like Arizona’s, he could do both.
He might not be a fit with the Cardinals considering he might be more well-suited dropping into zones and pass-rushing than chasing scatbacks or tight ends on mismatches, but there’s enough intrigue about him that some mocks have him pushing into top-15 territory. Others, however, see him as a second-round pick.
How easily teams can conceptualize how they might utilize him will have a lot to do with where he lands.
Collins offers an exciting blend of size, length, power, football intelligence, and versatility that makes him a dynamic prospect for the NFL. Whether it’s defending the run, dropping into coverage, or rushing the passer, Collins has the requisite skill set required to execute and was arguably the most dynamic defensive playmaker in college football for the 2020 season.