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NFL draft rumors: Patriots expressing interest in a first-round linebacker prospect

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

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

The New England Patriots’ defensive front seven struggled in 2020, but will get a significant boost once Dont’a Hightower returns from his Coronavirus opt-out. Even with the veteran expected back in the lineup this season, however, the team has a need at the linebacker position — one that could very well be addressed early in this year’s draft.

Zaven Collins is therefore a name to watch, and one the team is apparently also showing some interest in: according to Justin Melo of The Draft Network, the Patriots are among nine teams that have either already met virtually with the Tulsa linebacker or are scheduled to do so.

One of the most versatile defenders in this year’s draft, Collins is a true do-it-all linebacker. He can align off the ball and on the edge, play downhill against the run and rush the passer, and has the explosion and athleticism to drop into coverage as well. The 21-year-old has “dynamic playmaker” written all over him and as such could be a Day One impact player for any defense adding him to its arsenal.

Projected to come off the board in the first round in late April, Collins would therefore make plenty of sense from New England’s perspective.

As mentioned above, the franchise has a definitive need at the off-the-ball linebacker position after struggling to field consistent talent last season. Following Hightower’s opt-out as well as the free agency departures of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, the Patriots had to rely on third-year man Ja’Whaun Bentley as well as practice squad call-up Terez Hall and rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.

In fact, the second off-the-ball spot alongside Bentley was primarily filled by safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger — both in their first year in the system and undersized compared to traditional linebackers in New England’s scheme. Hightower’s return will bolster the depth of the group and raise its talent floor, but more long-term help is needed with him already turning 31 on March 12th.

Collins could be a perfect Hightower understudy and eventual successor as the leader of the Patriots’ front seven.

Of course, the biggest question will be whether or not New England is in a position to invest in Collins or other first-round linebackers such as Penn State’s Micah Parsons or Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The team, after all, also has major holes to fill at the quarterback and wide receiver positions.

A look at the current off-ball linebacker group, however, shows that the position should rank right up there in terms of need.

Besides Hightower, Bentley, Hall, Uche and Jennings, New England only has former practice squad members Cassh Maluia and Michael Pinckney under contract. Uche and Jennings could eventually turn into versatile starter-level players, but unless the team feels confident in their development adding a player like Collins in Round One would make plenty of sense to secure the long-term stability and quality of the position.

The other clubs showing interest in Collins are the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans.