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2021 NFL draft: Is Tulsa's Zaven Collins a new-breed LB? Or a unicorn?

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Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, which starts April 29, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down in groups of five for Nos. 100-51, followed by more in-depth reports on our top 50 players, with help from our scouting assistant, Liam Blutman. We reserve the right to make changes to players’ grades and evaluations based on injury updates, pro-day workouts or late-arriving information from NFL teams.

Other prospect rankings: Nos. 100-96 | 95-91 | 90-86 | 85-81 | 80-76 | 75-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. OT Liam Eichenberg | 49. WR Terrace Marshall Jr. | 48. LB Chazz Surratt | 47. EDGE Joe Tryon | 46. OT-OG Alex Leatherwood | 45. CB Asante Samuel Jr. | 44. DL Levi Onwuzurike | 43. LB Jabril Cox | 42. DT Daviyon Nixon | 41. EDGE Ronnie Perkins | 40. LB Nick Bolton | 39. CB Ifeatu Melifonwu | 38. WR Elijah Moore | 37. OT Jalen Mayfield | 36. EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. | 35. CB Elijah Molden | 34. RB Travis Etienne | 33. WR Kadarius Toney | 32. EDGE Jayson Oweh | 31. LB Zaven Collins | 30. DT Christian Barmore | 29. QB Mac Jones | 28. CB Caleb Farley | 27. RB Javonte Williams | 26. C-OG Landon Dickerson | 25. S Trevon Moehrig | 24. CB Greg Newsome II | 23. WR Rashod Bateman | 22. EDGE Greg Rousseau | 21. OT Christian Darrisaw | 20. RB Najee Harris | 19. LB-S Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah | 18. EDGE Jaelan Phillips | 17. OT Teven Jenkins | 16. EDGE Kwity Paye | 15. CB Jaycee Horn | 14. OT-OG Rashawn Slater | 13. OG-OT Alijah Vera-Tucker | 12. WR DeVonta Smith | 11. EDGE Azeez Ojulari | 10. CB Patrick Surtain II | 9. OT Penei Sewell | 8. QB Zach Wilson | 7. LB Micah Parsons | 6. QB Trey Lance | 5. WR Jaylen Waddle | 4. QB Justin Fields | 3. WR Ja'Marr Chase | 2. TE Kyle Pitts | 1. QB Trevor Lawrence

Here's how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Here's how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

31. Tulsa LB Zaven Collins

6-foot-5, 260 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.99 — potential starter

TL;DR scouting report: Throwback linebacker with mass and shocking versatility, even if his diagnostic skills could use some improvement

Games watched: Oklahoma State (2020), Tulane (2020), Cincinnati (2020), Central Florida (2020)

The skinny: A 2-star Rivals recruit, Collins only had an offer from Central Arkansas — despite attending a dozen camps to gain more recruiting notice — before Tulsa came in with his only D-I offer. Collins redshirted in 2017, practicing as a tight end and linebacker, before hitting the field. In 2018, he started the final 10 games (12 games played) and tallied 85 tackles (9.5 for losses), 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, one forced fumble, one recovery and a blocked field goal, earning Freshman All-America honors. In 2019, Collins made 106 tackles (nine for losses), two sacks, three passes defended, one fumble recovery and one blocked extra point, earning second-team All-American Athletic Conference mention.

Collins rose to national prominence in 2020, winning the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Awards and being named first-team AP All-America and AAC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He made 53 tackles (11.5 for losses), four sacks, four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), two pass breakups, one safety, one forced fumble and one recovery. Collins skipped Tulsa’s bowl game and declared early for the 2021 NFL draft.

Upside: Unusually large frame for a linebacker — throwback in the Jeremiah Trotter mold. Carries his bulk very well. Long frame with good arm length (33 5/8 inches), adequate hand size (9 3/8 inches) and monster wingspan (80 3/8 inches). Looks like a high-school kid playing on the Pop Warner team out there.

Fluid mover — shockingly light on his feet. Glides around the field with ease. Strong pro-day testing numbers in the vertical (35 inches) and broad jumps (122 inches) and ran a snappy 40-yard dash (4.67 seconds) at 259 pounds. Quick and sudden. Very good long speed for a man his size.

Terrific three-year production — 236 tackles (30 for losses), 7.5 sacks, five interceptions, three forced fumbles and three recovered fumbles. Turned in a stunning performance vs. Tulane with 15 tackles and a walk-off 96-yard pick-six to end it in double overtime. Lined up inside and outside.

Naturally instinctive for late-blooming project. Good peripheral vision to see the action flowing around him. Takes good paths to the ball and closes fast. Uses his hands to keep blockers off his chest and slips block attempts deftly. Rangy enough to make plays sideline to sideline and track down ball carriers from behind.

Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins was one of college football's best defenders in 2020. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio, File)
Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins was one of college football's best defenders in 2020. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio, File)

Facile in coverage — more than 800 career coverage snaps. Soft hands to make plays on the ball. Handled both man and zone adeptly. High school QB who has good feel for passing concepts and route combos. Reads quarterbacks eyes and can even bait them into throwing the ball where they don’t want. Can pivot quickly to make plays outside his area.

Experienced pass rusher who times up his blitzes well — waits for a crack of daylight and strikes when the iron is hot. Will run over unprepared backs and tight ends in pass pro. Good finishing skills.

Selfless, team-first player. Credited with excellent work ethic and natural leadership. Takes on blocks and closes down gaps in the run game. Plays with strong effort and seldom comes off the field. Extensive special-teams background with a history of kick blocking and two years’ worth of strong punt coverage duty. Great combination of production and traits to succeed.

Downside: Not an explosive, blowback hitter for his size — more of a drag-down tackler. More of a passive play style — could use a little more grit in his diet. Shows pop in his hands but can be more violent at the point of attack. Not an imposing figure or true tone setter for his sheer mass.

Gives great effort if he’s thrown off his track but could do a better job of anticipating oncoming blockers. Best when shielded and kept clean up front by two-gapping defensive linemen. Doesn’t always maximize his physical gifts to the hilt.

Still developing his key-reading — will take suspect angles, overshoot his mark or be fooled by misdirection and play action. Not likely to stick with ultra-fast backs or tight ends in man coverage at the next level. Can be shook in space by quickness.

Run fits are inconsistent. Tackling needs to be cleaned up — still too many whiffs on tape for a first-round prospect. Could stand to raise his target zone a bit and drive through ball carriers better.

Pass-rush skills might be limited to the occasional blitz. Relies more on his athletic gifts at this stage than he does with pristine technique. Gets high in his rush and gives a big target for tackles to zero in on.

Best-suited destination: NFL linebackers have tended to get smaller in recent years as teams seek faster coverage players to handle spread systems and talented receivers at tight end and running back. The beauty of Collins is that he can play small ball in a big frame. With his coverage and blitz ability, along with his work as a developing run defender, he projects as an eventual three-down linebacker who also should contribute heavily early on special teams.

Among the teams we could see being very interested in Collins’ services include the Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, although he is interesting enough for pretty much any team to reconsider Collins even if he doesn’t fit their preferred prototype.

Did you know: Collins was a high school dual-threat QB at tiny Hominy High in Oklahoma, leading the Bucks to a Class-A state title as a senior.

Player comp: Sort of a mashup of K.J. Wright, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy.

Expected draft range: First-round pick

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