Chiefs Projected to Draft Nation’s Best Defender in First-Round Trade Up

Zaven Collins Tulsa

Getty Tulsa LB Zaven Collins won the 2020 Bronko Nagurski Trophy awarded to the nation's top defensive player.

The Kansas City Chiefs have an important game or two remaining before the team’s NFL Draft plans become top of mind. However, one recent mock draft, in particular, has the reigning Super Bowl champions taking an aggressive approach to address a position many Chiefs fans might already consider stable.

This week, Benjamin Solak, senior NFL Draft analyst for The Draft Network, laid out a scenario in which Kansas City traded up five spots in the first round with the Baltimore Ravens at the cost of a third-for-fourth-round pick swap.

The prize?

Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins.

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Collins Recognized as National Defensive Player of the Year

A small-school linebacker who is anything but that on the field, Collins was named the 2020 Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner, awarded to college football’s top defensive player of the year. A unanimous choice for the honor, he beat out some other noteworthy finalists and future first-round picks such as Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II.

As a junior in 2020, Collins posted 53 tackles (11.5 for loss), 4.0 sacks, four interceptions (tied fifth among all players), two pass breakups, one fumble recovery and a pair of pick-sixes — one of which was a 96-yard game-winner in overtime against Tulane. Collins also came to play against Tulsa’s four top-25 opponents last season, notching 35 total tackles (25 solo) tackles, 10 tackles for loss and all 4.0 of his sacks in those contests.

Stat sheet aside, here was Solak’s justification for the trade-up:

The Chiefs made a Day 2 pick at linebacker in Willie Gay during the 2020 draft, but he never really cracked the rotation behind Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and Ben Niemann. Improvement is still desperately needed there. I’ll go for a unique athlete in the Nagurski Award-winning Collins. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, Collins will be best on a defense like Steve Spagnuolo’s, which is heavy on zone blitz structures that will take advantage of his hitting power on rushes, and then his instincts and length on zone drops. He and Gay form a nice size/speed duo if Gay can rise up the depth chart.

Considered a raw talent coming out of Mississippi State last year, Gay was brought along slowly by the Chiefs coaching staff this season, though he showed flashes of his upside across eight starts. The 22-year-old may be counted on more heavily in 2021 as Wilson and Niemann are both set to become unrestricted free agents in an offseason of limited salary cap space for Kansas City. Even with Hitchens, the green dot wearer and an unsung leader on defense, under contract through 2023, Collins’ skill set might be too good to pass up.

Solak’s fellow senior draft analyst Joe Marino had this to say about Collins’ pro prospects in his December scouting report:

After a high school career in which Zaven Collins was a four-year starter at quarterback and linebacker/safety, Tulsa was the only Division I program to offer him a scholarship. He ended his college career by claiming the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is awarded to the nation’s best defensive player. 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. He demonstrated notable growth in 2020, becoming a complete defender and making high-impact, clutch plays seemingly every week. The Belichick disciples and teams that deploy that style of defense are likely salivating over Collins’ skill set and he projects as an impact defender in the NFL that can make plays in a variety of ways.

Projected Chiefs Salary Cap & Draft Picks

As of AFC Championship week, the Chiefs are scheduled to have eight picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, including a pair of mid-round compensatory selections for the free-agent losses of DB Kendall Fuller (Washington) and DE Emmanuel Ogbah (Miami) last offseason, per Over The Cap.

  • Round 1
  • Round 2
  • Round 3
  • Round 4
  • Round 4 (compensatory/Fuller)
  • Round 5
  • Round 5 (compensatory/Ogbah)
  • Round 6 (from Miami Dolphins/DeAndre Washington)
  • Though the window of opportunity has nearly closed, Kansas City could still stand to add an additional third-round compensatory selection thanks to a resolution passed by the NFL in November to reward teams for developing minority head coaches and general managers. Of course, that additional draft capital hinges on offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy landing the last remaining head coaching vacancy with the Houston Texans.

    That said, the Chiefs are likely looking at eight draft picks and a tricky cap situation upon season’s end. The league’s salary cap will drop for the 2021 season, but the question remains exactly how much it will fall from its all-time high of $198.2 million per club. Using the potential floor of $175 million, Kansas City is approximately $18 million over at present, according to Spotrac.

    Fortunately, a new report from Pro Football Talk this week suggested that number could wind up closer to $180 million, in addition to the nearly $5.1 million the Chiefs will roll over to next season, per ESPN’s Field Yates on Wednesday.


    Chris Licata is an NFL contributor covering the Kansas City Chiefs from enemy territory in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @Chris__Licata or join the Heavy on Chiefs Facebook community for the latest out of Chiefs Kingdom!

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