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2021 Patriots draft profile: Zaven Collins is the perfect middle linebacker to replace Dont’a Hightower

Related: Patriots draft profile: Mac Jones, New England’s quarterback of the future?

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Tulsa Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots selected Dont’a Hightower, a 6-foot-4 monster linebacker who was physical against the run and a load to block in the pass rush game, in the first round of the 2012 draft. Hightower would go on to be one of the most accomplished players at his position in the franchise’s history, putting in outstanding performances in the Patriots’ three most recent Super Bowl victories.

He will likely be enshrined in the team’s Hall of Fame within the next 10 years, thanks to his contributions in his nine seasons in New England. The problem with Hightower is that he is on the wrong side of 30 and has an injury history. He also did not play in the 2020 season after exercising the Coronavirus opt-out.

With all three of those factors contributing to what may be an uncertain future, it may be time to consider finding a successor before Hightower retires or walks in free agency in 2022. Luckily this year’s draft does have a player who offers a similar skill set to what Hightower provided in the past, and would therefore be the perfect successor at the heart of the New England defense: Tulsa University’s Zaven Collins.

Name: Zaven Collins

Position: Linebacker

School: Tulsa (Redshirt Junior)

Week 1 Age: 22

2020 Stats: 54 tackles (36 solo), 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, 4 interceptions (2 returned for touchdowns), 3 passes deflected

Size: 6’4”, 260

Expected round: 1st/Top-20

Strengths: Collins is a player with an extremely rare combination of size, speed, intelligence that fits extremely well into the Patriots’ defense. He’s a former quarterback who previously played both sides of the ball before committing to the linebacker position in college — one who has the versatility to handle both on- and off-the-ball roles. New England prides itself on having versatile players, and Collins is no different than past linebackers who have succeeded in this defense.

The ability to line up inside against the run and play on the edge or inside as a rusher would give Bill Belichick plenty of options to attack opposing offenses. Collins’ ability to impact the game as a pass rusher will put him on the field immediately while he learns other responsibilities at the linebacker position, even though he is further ahead than most other linebacker prospects that find their way to New England.

Weaknesses: Collins didn’t get a scholarship offer from a Power-Five program out of high school, so he ended up going to Tulsa. Even with the competition level as a concern, he ended up securing the Bronco Nagurski Trophy for the best defensive player in college in his redshirt junior year before declaring for the draft. While his individual numbers aren’t overly impressive on their own, there are very few players in college who put together four sacks and four interceptions in the same season.

With the major step up in competition from the American Athletic Conference to a very stacked AFC, the Patriots might have to be patient in his development in the first couple seasons.

Why the Patriots should draft him: Collins’ skill set is an ideal fit for the Patriots defense. The Patriots don’t necessarily prefer linebackers who are good at multiple things versus players who are great at one thing and passable elsewhere. He has the ability to impact the game against the run and pass, both as a rusher and a coverage defender.

I have no doubt he will also make an impact on special teams, in the coverage units and possibly blocking on field goals. New England would be getting a player with four-down value.

Why the Patriots might not draft him: I could see him easily getting snatched up earlier in the draft. Teams like the New York Giants with Joe Judge as their head coach could end up taking Collins to play either a strong-side linebacker role, or someone who could play all the spots in a four-linebacker defense. Also, how the board shakes up ahead of the Patriots could play a role as well: an early run on quarterbacks and receivers would give the team more options to look at on the defensive side of the ball — just as a run on defensive players would give the Patriots more options on offense.

If a player like Micah Parsons or Jaylen Waddle is still there at No. 15, they present just a tad bit more value than Collins. However, out of all the players in the draft class who present a realistic option with the 15th overall pick, I would place the highest odds of eventually ending up as New England’s pick on him.

Who would he have to beat out: The only linebackers who are safely projected to the 53-man roster are second-year men Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings. In reality Collins will try to push guys like Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall and Cassh Maluia out of the lineup, if not off the roster altogether.

Projected 2021 role: The Patriots would rotate him in both on- and off-ball roles to see what areas he is good at and which areas might need improvement. He would also be involved heavily on special teams, on the coverage units as well as potential on the field goal unit as an edge blocker. I would expect him to get roughly the third most snaps among the Patriots’ linebackers who do not align exclusively on the edge.

2022 and beyond role: Think Dont’a Hightower 2.0, hopefully with better health. The Patriots would move him around the front seven, in order to attack the weaknesses of the opposing offensive lines. He has the versatility to drop into coverage or rush the passer on third downs, so that would give the Patriots an extra layer of complexity for the quarterback on the other side to deal with. Being a former QB himself, he would also make a logical choice to be a captain and become the defensive signal caller for the team in the long term.

Once Collins learns how to be an effective rusher in the A and B gaps as well, I can see him develop into Bill Belichick’s best chess piece on defense — one that would pair up with Josh Uche to terrorize quarterbacks from the various linebacker spots.

Final thoughts: Collins almost makes too much sense for the Patriots and how they like to construct and run their defense. His versatility at the linebacker level is very reminiscent of what Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins have provided for this team in the past. As a former quarterback, he also seems to understand what the opposing offense is likely doing and is therefore quick to recognize plays.

His combination of size, speed, athleticism, and football IQ is quite rare which makes Zaven Collins someone the Patriots could regret letting slip away if they pass on him.