TEMPE — It hasn’t been the start to the season many envisioned Arizona Cardinals rookie linebacker Zaven Collins.
After being named the team’s starting MIKE linebacker by general manager Steve Keim this offseason, Collins has yet to record more than 41% of the defensive snaps in a game this year.
Week 4’s win over the Los Angeles Rams was his lowest snap output of the year. He saw just 6% of the defensive snaps and was used more as a special teamer (41%).
Even for players with the utmost confidence in themselves, the situation Collins is in can be a bit earth-shaking.
Luckily for Collins, he doesn’t have to experience the ebbs and flows of his rookie season alone. If anyone gets what he is is going through right now, it’s second-year pro and inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons.
“I talk to him every week just to know, just to see where his head space is at,” Simmons said Wednesday. “Just because I know how it feels to be in that position. … Sometimes that’s just how the cards fall. … It’s nothing personal about us not thinking he can get the job done or somebody else could do it better than him.
“We can’t control what personnel other teams run. … It’s a week-to-week thing. I know his snap count was down a little bit but this week could be completely different where he plays the whole game.”
Simmons didn’t see more than 29% of defensive snaps over his first seven games as a Cardinal in 2020, including a season-low 6% in Week 7.
Over the next nine games, however, Simmons saw a lot more reps as he grew more and more comfortable in the defense. He turned those snaps into 42 tackles, 2.0 sacks, three QB hits and a forced fumble by the finish of the season.
Now in 2021, Simmons leads the defense in tackles and is the only other Cardinal with at least one interception this season behind Byron Murphy’s three-pick effort.
Defensive lineman J.J. Watt is another elder who has been big in keeping Collins focused on the long-term goal.
“Zaven and I talk all the time, just had lunch last Friday,” Watt said Thursday. “He bought it for me, which was very nice. It was beautiful. He’s a good kid, he’s a sponge. He wants to learn, he wants to grow.
“He wants to fit in and be one of the guys and to work his [expletive] off and he does. He does it all. It’s just a matter of just keep going, keep grinding and keep doing your job.”
As Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has said in the past, Collins sees the majority of his defensive snaps against the run in the team’s base package.
That could mean we see more of Collins on Sunday against a San Francisco 49ers team that is among the top 10 in rushing attempts across the NFL and very likely could have a rookie quarterback in Trey Lance under center.
“I think it’s good for him to have a small package to grow at his own speed and it’s gonna be a heavy run game this week,” Joseph said. “We’ll see how much he plays but it’s gonna be week-to-week from what package he’s in to how much he plays.
“He is so eager. … the more he plays and the more stuff he sees, the better he will get,” Joseph added.