When the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth-overall pick, the table was set to re-establish the dominant running game the team had in 2014. A talented player like Zeke will get the most out of his blocks and should provide the Cowboys with an offensive spark. But this return to glory for the ground attack won't be solely attributed to their prize running back. The team has another top five talent who will be looking to take his game to the next level.
The Cowboys offensive line is fortified with talent. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin have been in the league a collective total of 10 years and already have seven Pro Bowls between them. And all of them are just now old enough to rent a car. The Cowboys have done a great job with their first round investments on the O-Line, but it could be a player they didn't draft that surprises some people. La'el Collins was passed up by all 32 NFL teams after news broke that he would be questioned by the police regarding the shooting death of his ex-girlfriend. Collins was never a suspect, but it was enough to deter would-be suitors for his services on draft day. The Cowboys would do their homework and sign the talented left tackle out of LSU right after the draft ended.
Collins was one of the standout linemen coming out of college last year. At 6'4" and 305 pounds, he possesses great size to handle pro level pass rushers. Though he was a LT in college, he has good run blocking skills to handle the shift inside. Once he gets his hands on the defender, he'll drive them several yards as they ponder what they should have done differently. He entered the league fundamentally sound, able to make a contribution right away. The Cowboys wasted little time getting him on the field as he came in for an injured Ron Leary in week two, but then took over the starting job by game six. There were some growing pains, but Collins became a reliable fixture in the Cowboys offensive line and gave the team 11 starts his rookie season.
As he enters year two, he has a shot to build upon a solid season and entrench himself as one of the top linemen in the league. Playing in between Smith and Frederick affords him the luxury of very manageable assignments as he'll never be overextended to pick up the slack of his neighbors. Collins has frequented the highlight reel with some amazing displays of athleticism from things like pancaking multiple Seattle defenders on a single play to flying down the field, going toe-to-toe with Darren McFadden for a 45-yard gain (watch highlight here) against Green Bay. The raw ability of Collins has never been a question, but he's going to be scary-good once he fine tunes his game.
Some fans look at the 2015 season and see an offensive line that regressed. After all, only the Oakland Raiders had more false start penalties than the Cowboys did last season. And fans can't escape those failed third and short plays that forced the punting unit on the field. If you ask Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles, he'll be the first one to tell you that the Cowboys offensive line is over-hyped. He had this to say about DeMarco Murray last offseason:
"He was the rushing champ last year. He almost broke the record. For him to come here and not duplicate that, that would discredit us a little bit with the Dallas offensive line. We've got to make sure he gets his yards," Peters said. "That's a big challenge. The Dallas offensive line is good. We're just better. We're going to make sure he gets his yards."
Well, consider them discredited. He probably would have chosen different words if he would have known Murray was going to be stuffed in the backfield so many times in week two last season.
But even though the Cowboys offensive line wasn't without fault, they did a lot of things well. The Cowboys offense took a big hit in the absence of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, but that didn't stop the offensive line from grading out as the best unit in the NFL and helping a very blasé running back like Darren McFadden rush for over 1,000 yards. One has to wonder, just how good they'll look with the added talent of the 2016 triplets.
And if Collins takes a big step forward during his sophomore season, it's just going to make the best offensive line in football even better.