Although there are limited things that can be learned during the non-contact practices that comprise the OTAs and minicamp, it does offer a chance to see how the team lines players up, particularly new ones. One thing that has been getting a lot of attention for the Dallas Cowboys has been the way they have used La'el Collins. He played as a tackle in college, but may be a better fit at guard at the next level. Dallas has used the first two weeks of OTAs to work him at both positions. The first week, he filled in for rehabbing right tackle Doug Free. This most recent sessions saw him working at left guard where he would be competition for Ronald Leary.
There seems to be something of an assumption that Collins is going to replace either Free or Leary as a starter this season, with the left guard job seen as his most likely landing spot. He was expected to be a first-round selection before he got caught up in the bizarre series of events surrounding the tragic death of an ex-girlfriend. And everyone knows that in today's NFL, first-round picks start or they are busts. Ergo, it is just a matter of figuring out who Collins should replace.
But that is an unwarranted assumption. Collins may have been a first-round talent, but he did not cost the Cowboys a first-round pick. And that makes a huge difference in how his role with the team is likely to be considered.
The brain trust of the Cowboys, especially Jason Garrett, often talk about how the objective approaching the draft is to have the real needs filled already with affordable free agents. Doing this is intended to allow the team to draft the best or most-talented player available without focusing on his position, taking into consideration how the player fits the scheme and preferred profile Dallas has. Ideally this is how the draft is approached. But real life very rarely comes near to the ideal, and no matter how much any NFL team may commit to the best player approach, they also have to look at the needs of the roster.
If you are already fully-stocked at a given position, it is hard to justify using a first-round pick on a player that you are going to have a hard time finding a way to get on the field. The positions of need have to be factored into how you build your draft board. This year, it was fairly clear that Dallas had much more weight on several defensive positions than it had on any offensive spot. While you might take a clear blue chip player even if you have something of a surplus at that position, Dallas was picking at 27, and that was not going to be a consideration. They went with one of the real needs in picking Byron Jones even while they were adhering to their desire to take the best player left on their board. The board took that need into account.
But La'el Collins was a pure case of best player available. Because he was forced to enter the league as a UDFA, there was no cost as far as a draft pick despite him being far and away the biggest talent out there after the draft. Because of the CBA, he came at a fixed cost that makes him one of the cheapest players on the team. He costs no more than any other UDFA, and only gained having his contract fully-guaranteed. In cap terms, he cost the Cowboys a pittance. And instead of a need acquisition, he is something that is almost never seen in the NFL: He is a luxury.
This means that there is no pressure to force him into a starting role. Had he been taken in the first round, the team that selected him would almost certainly been one with a serious need at either guard or tackle, and he would have been practicing with the ones from the very beginning. Start or bust. When a player taken in the first round does not turn into an immediate starter, then questions are asked about just what kind of job the general manager and scouts are doing. First-round picks are the most valuable single tool any NFL team has to improve itself. That generates a lot of pressure to force that first round investment onto the field. This in turn means that teams are not very likely to pick a player who has almost no chance of taking the place of an established player.
No matter how much Garrett likes the best player approach, it would have made no sense for the Cowboys to use a first-round pick to draft an offensive linemen when they had all five starters from one of the premier units in the league returning. There is a general perception that Leary is the weak link on the line, but when you are lined up with three All Pro former first-round picks and one very experienced veteran that is valued as much for his leadership as his talent, being called the weak link is not much of an insult. According to Pro Football Focus, he grades out as the 17th best guard in the league. When you take into account the handful of teams who had two guards that graded higher, he was better than both starters for 20 other franchises. Why would you want to just boot him to the side, no matter how good a rookie you had to take his place? And when you take into account the games he missed (PFF scores are cumulative), Free is even better. As it is, he ranked 20th under their system - and Jermey Parnell was 21st. Had Free played the entire season, he would have likely been in the top 10 or 12 tackles in the league. There is an old saying that if it ain't broke, you don't fix it. In this case, if it is one of the best in existence, you think really hard about tinkering with things.
Collins is a very talented rookie, but it would be foolish to just give him a starting job. He is going to have to clearly beat out someone. I don't think he can. Experience and continuity are not things that you can discount.
That is not a problem. Given the extremely low cost of acquiring Collins, the team can easily keep him as a backup. They are in need of depth on a line that currently has Mackenzy Bernadeau as the sum total of proven reserve players. Collins is seen as having the ability to play all five positions on the line, so he would become very valuable on the bench while being developed as a long term replacement for either Leary or Free down the road. With him, Bernadeau, and whoever wins the swing tackle competition (early reports indicate that third-round pick Chaz Green may be a decent option there), Dallas would probably be able to go into the season with only eight offensive linemen and feel very comfortable about that situation, while freeing up a spot or two for other needs on the roster. In two years, the Cowboys will have a better idea of the long term career arc for Collins to start negotiating a new deal with him.
All the "first-round talent" talk has created certain expectations about Collins that are not truly justified. On most NFL teams, he would almost certainly be penciled in as a starter. But not with the Cowboys. For them, he can be looked at as true quality depth. In signing him, the Cowboys did not fill a burning need. Instead, the rich just got richer.