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What does the La’el Collins contract extension tell us about the future of the Dallas Cowboys?

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Nobody saw this coming, so we ask the question - is there something we’re missing?

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This was supposed to be the summer of contract extensions for the Dallas Cowboys as the big three of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper are all looking for second contracts. Yet, here we are and none of them have gotten new deals. That hasn’t stopped the front office from whipping out their checkbooks as the team has agreed to terms with two other players - linebacker Jaylon Smith, and now right tackle La’el Collins.

The extension of Smith was welcomed with open arms. The Cowboys got a great price on him as he’s signed with the team for the next seven years for a total cost of just under $70 million. That means the Cowboys get one of the top rising defensive talents in the league for the low cost of just $10 M a year. That’s fantastic.

The Collins extension, however, has some puzzled. There had been speculation that the organization would not re-sign him once his contract expired after the 2019 season. The team has already invested $238 million towards the contracts of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick. Extending Collins puts them closer to the vicinity of $300 million spent on just those four players. That’s a very large amount of money allocated to their offensive line. Why would the Cowboys do this, especially with so many other key players the need to pay?

Maybe the health of the offensive line is a little more concerning that we realize

Tyron Smith is dealing with a bad back. Sure, he’s only 28-years-old, but let’s not forget that he’s been in the league since he was 20, so he’s put a lot of mileage on that body. Eight years spent with the league’s most powerful edge rushers pound on you can be very jarring on that back. He has missed three games in each of the last three seasons, and it wouldn’t shock anyone if he misses time again this season. The Cowboys are already mindful of that, which is why swing tackle Cameron Fleming received the second-biggest contract of any of their free agent signings this offseason.

If the team has concerns about Smith’s health, they could be leaving the door open for a possible exit strategy. Even though Smith does have five years left on his contract, his dead money hit drops to $5.2 M after this season and just $1.7 M the year after that.

Nobody wants to think about life without Smith, but if you look at all the recent decisions the team has made regarding the offensive line, something’s a bit askew. The team went super heavy at offensive line for their final roster, including hanging on to undrafted free agent Brandon Knight, who just so happens to be able to play tackle. And one of their practice squad players is UDFA Mitch Hyatt. The team is making sure they have tackle depth.

Maybe the decision to keep Collins has nothing to do with Smith specifically, but just the collective concern of their star linemen in general. Zack Martin is also dealing with a back issue. His was bad enough that he was shelved for training camp to allow him more time to heal. Should Martin become unavailable, that means they would need to call on that interior line depth to help out. That could foil their chance to move Connor Williams outside to cover for La’el if Williams is needed inside. Keeping Collins on the roster means they’d no longer have to worry about moving Williams, who will hopefully show great improvement at the left guard position this year. Securing their talent along the offensive line is great, but doesn’t it comes with a cost?

What does it mean for other players looking for contracts?

On the surface, the Cowboys have a ridiculous amount of cap resources for the 2020 season, so it feels like they can sign the world. Dallas is ranked fourth in terms of cap space with $90 million to play with.

Cap numbers courtesy of Spotrac

What that doesn’t show is the money they’re going to pay Dak , Zeke, or Amari. The team also only has 36 players currently signed for next season, so there a plenty of other players that will need money, too. Those players include starters such as Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, Maliek Collins, and Anthony Brown. It’s hard to get a outlook as to what their real cap space is going to look at when some of these players are signed, but one this is for sure - after the Collins extension, there is less pie to go around.

Will it mean they can’t afford to pay Prescott, Elliott, or Cooper? No. No. And no. But it does mean the team now has to be more deliberate with who gets a new deal now. Franchise tags could certainly come into play if Prescott or Cooper don’t get an extension this season. The team will undoubtedly lose key defensive help as they will not be able to keep all those guys listed above. Jones had a breakout season last year, and Maliek Collins could very well have breakout season this year. The chances of both those guys getting second contracts in Dallas just took a hit.

It’s hard to know what the driving force was behind the Cowboys decision to extend Collins, but clearly something is going on that isn’t always apparent to us on the outside. Is it health of the offensive line? Let’s hope not. Are they planning to let a key player walk? Possible. Time will tell, but the Collins’ deal certainly changes things for this team going forward.