$14.4 million difference in the salary cap. Terence Steele, an undrafted free agent on a contract as cheap as they come, versus La’el Collins, the sixth-highest-paid right tackle in the NFL.
And with news that Collins is on the trade block and several teams are potentially interested, there is a chance Steele takes over as the team’s right tackle. But is it worth it? Is the dropoff from Collins to Steele sizeable enough to justify the $15.3 million cap hit he will carry in 2022? Or is finding a team willing to take his contract, similar to what they did with Amari Cooper, the correct decision?
The drop-off from Collins to Steele isn’t as drastic as you might think
Quick disclaimer, Collins is the better player. Anyone who argues Steele is an upgrade at RT would be misguided and based on what we saw in 2021, that is not true. To put it into perspective, Collins was the 15th ranked tackle by PFF grading and Steele was 58th. There is no debate that the former-LSU lineman is better.
But that is not the question. If we look into their stats, what is the true dropoff outside of PFF ranking alone? And given this dropoff, is cutting or trading Collins worth it?
In 2021, Steele played 170 more snaps for the Dallas Cowboys due to Tyron Smith and Collins being unavailable at various points in the season. So, for most of these metrics, it is important to keep in mind that Steele was used more.
At the most basic level, Collins allowed a quarterback pressure on 2.6% of snaps with two sacks, and Steele allowed a 3.4% pressure rate with two sacks. So, while Collins was consistently better in pass-protection with an efficiency grade of 97.7, Steele wasn't far behind with a grade of 96.6.
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This is on top of the fact that Steele allowed five more quarterback hits and nine more quarterback hurries. But Steele also had to shift over to left tackle, which he was clearly less comfortable with.
Because in the games where Steele played right tackle alone, seven games, he allowed zero sacks, two quarterback hits, and 14 pressures with an efficiency grade of 97.5. With a similar snap count at RT, nearly all of those stats are better than what Collins did in 2021. The only metric Collins beats Steele is in quarterback hits, of which he allowed none.
So, if you only take pass protection, these two players are very similar and you could actually make the argument that Steele at RT was better than Collins at RT in pass-protection alone.
Run blocking is where Collins shines. The seven-year veteran RT missed weeks two through eight, and during these games, Ezekiel Elliott briefly returned to 2016 form. But the rushing games’ success before the bye was not due to Steele playing RT.
Of the 88 qualifying tackles in the NFL, Collins finished as the fourth-best run blocker by PFF grading. Steele ranks 46th. While Collins was penalized more in run protection, at two penalties to one, he is still better at opening up holes for his RBs.
But again, in fairness to Steele, he was forced to play both left and right tackle whereas Collins did not. And in the games where Steele was at RT, he was the 13th best lineman in run blocking by PFF grading. In the weeks he played RT, he finished with a higher run-blocking grade than names like Jason Peters, Garett Bolles, Andrew Thomas, and Tristan Wirfs.
Across an entire season, not looking at where they played, it would seem that Collins is the significantly better run blocker and Steele is below average at best. But, if we look at where they played specifically, Steele was actually solid in run blocking when he played RT. The dropoff is more evident, but it is still close.
There are a few loose ends that need tying up. The first is penalties. Despite the fact that Steele is a younger player and thus presumably less disciplined, he actually finished with two fewer penalties than Collins in 2021 (eight to ten). And keep in mind that was also on 170 more snaps over the season.
Another aspect worth looking at is availability. As the overused expression goes, the best ability is availability. Steele has managed to eclipse 900 snaps in each of his first two seasons in the league, proving to be durable when the team needed him to step up.
Collins on the other hand hasn't eclipsed 900 snaps since 2019 and has only hit that mark in three years of his seven-year career. That means Steele has more snaps in the past two years (1,887) than Collins has in the last three years (1,743).
Finally, development should be considered. Because while both players were undrafted, Collins’ draft status was due to extenuating circumstances and thus he was expected to play above his draft price. Steele was not.
But Steele’s 15-point improvement in his PFF run-blocking grade paired with a 12-point improvement in his pass blocking from 2020 to 2021 shows he is still getting better. He jumped from being the 89th graded tackle in 2020 to 58th in 2021.
In Collins’ full sophomore year (because he missed practically all of 2016) he finished with a PFF grade of 63.3. Steele’s grade in 2021 was 64.6. So to believe that Steele could still develop similar to Collins isn’t a ridiculous notion. Now, obviously Cowboys fans shouldn't expect it, but it isn’t ridiculous to say.
Therefore, because these two players are similar in both pass and run blocking, especially when you just take Steele’s stats as an RT, paired with the fact that he avoids penalties, he is more durable, and he is still developing, the drop-off doesn’t seem as drastic.
For those reasons, finding a suitor to take on Collins’ contract, free up a little more space, and see what Steele can do seems like the best move. This would take a little faith in Jerry and Stephen Jones to spend the money right, which is a scary proposition. But at face value, the move works.