Last year, the Dallas Cowboys played an entire year without La’el Collins at right tackle. His absence was felt as the team filled the void by starting rookie undrafted free agent Terence Steele before then relying on moving Zack Martin to tackle, only to then go back to Steele after Martin was hurt. While the rook’s effort was admirable, it just wasn’t the same level of play they got from the veteran Collins.
What a difference a year makes.
Collins was back in action for the 2021 season opener, but has missed the last five games serving a suspension. Again, the team called upon Steele to fill in, only this time things are much different. The second-year tackle is much improved and the Cowboys' offense hasn’t missed a beat with Steele in the lineup. The team has had great success running in his direction and quarterback Dak Prescott has had plenty of clean pockets to operate from. Dallas has won all five of their games with Steele starting at right tackle.
Now, with Collins’ suspension over, there were expectations for him to return to right tackle, only it doesn’t appear to be going down that way. Head coach Mike McCarthy indicated that Steele will remain at right tackle while giving Collins reps at guard.
Terence Steele will start at right tackle Sunday vs. Minnesota even with La'el Collins back from suspension, according to Mike McCarthy. Collins will also work at guard during the week, so Cowboys could be setting up "best five," OL scenario now.— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) October 27, 2021
It’s really tough to figure out what’s really going on with this. There are plenty of theories out there. Some believe this is purely related to conditioning after Collins has been out of action for so long. Others think he may have fallen out of favor with the coaches after the suspension ordeal. And then there’s always the belief by some that Steele is now a better option than Collins as the vast improvement of the youngster has been displayed quite well over the last several weeks.
The real answer may not reveal itself right away, so we’ll just wait it out. But what if Steele ended up being the long-term answer at right tackle? What would that mean for the Cowboys down the road as it pertains to the players they have under contract. Is Collins still a part of their future? Or could he be in line for a position change yet again? Before we try to figure things out, let’s take a look at the offensive linemen players they have under contract now and later (figures courtesy of Spotrac).
As you can see from this breakdown, the Cowboys are set for the most part with a great majority of their player sticking around for at least a few years. The biggest question revolves around the left guard position next season when Connor Williams’ rookie deal expires. The easy answer to that is to just slide Connor McGovern into that spot; however, even in that scenario, McGovern would only be their starter for the 2022 season before entering free agency himself. Of course, by that time Matt Farniok may be in the mix somehow.
This paints a picture that sliding Collins to guard doesn’t really give them much extra and seems like a wasteful use of a perfectly good tackle. And if anyone thinks that they could be looking to phase LC out completely and just move forward with their group of the future, is that a reasonable option? To answer that, let’s first take a look at Collins’ contract.
It’s important to note that the Cowboys just converted $7 million of Collins’ 2021 base salary and spread that cost out over four years. That’s a move the organization tends to make when they feel like the player is going to be a part of the team for a while as releasing them early comes with a more expensive dead money hit. It’s not cost-effective to cut Collins anytime soon.
So, what does all this tell us? It tells us that the most ideal situation is for Collins to demonstrate that he’s the right choice at right tackle while giving the team a reliable and cheap swing tackle for the next few years. Maybe by then Steele will earn a second contract and assert himself as a strong tackle in this league as he may be a replacement for Tyron Smith when he retires. It will be interesting to see how things play out, but it’s hard not seeing Collins back to his starting spot soon. Of course, as we’ve seen already this season, anything is a possibility.