La’el Collins might be the best draft steal the Dallas Cowboys will ever make, and he still may only be with the team for a total of five seasons.
In one of the strangest plots of recent draft memory, Collins went undrafted in 2015 after spending months being considered one of the best offensive line prospects of the year. The reason? His ex-girlfriend was murdered, and he was considered a person of interest. He was never considered a suspect, but the mystery just a few days before the draft sent him plummeting.
He and his agent, knowing the windfall of cash he had lost, declared that no team should draft him, and all 32 clubs listened. From Sports Illustrated:
In Baton Rouge, Collins sweats out the second day of the draft while his agents unfurl a new plan. Rather than lobby for him to be drafted, they issue an ultimatum to teams: Draft La’el in the second or third rounds, or don’t draft him at all.
The hardest part, Gilmore says, was selling Collins on the idea: “I’m explaining it to this young man and he’s having a hard time accepting it. We’re trying not to get drafted? He had to have a lot of trust in us.”
Collins signed on with Dallas after a whirlwind recruiting pitch by Jerry Jones that included a lavish dinner with Tony Romo, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
It didn’t take long for him to see action, entering in just his second game as a replacement for injured starter Ron Leary.
In Collins three seasons, he’s started 30 of 48 possible games. After playing left tackle for LSU, he switched to left guard when he joined the Cowboys and was moved to right tackle last season.
Injuries have caused him to miss plenty of time over his first two seasons, though he played through back injuries to start and finish all 16 games in 2017.
Per Spotrac, the Cowboys’ offensive line recently eclipsed the Falcons as the highest allocation, $47,330,201, with Zack Martin’s extension. With the offensive line taking up 26.6% of the team’s cap space, the unit is expected to produce at an enormous level.
Over The Cap has Dallas as third in the league with just under $44 million spent on the line.
Collins is no doubt a huge key to the success of the offense, but with so much money tied up with Smith, Frederick and Martin for the foreseeable future can the Cowboys also sign Collins to a contract that will be equal to his level of talent?
Collins has two seasons left on his contract with a cap hit of $5,758,333 this season and $7,408,334 in 2019 before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2020.
This season Collins is responsible for 2.9% of the team’s total cap space and 12.2% of the offensive line’s total salaries.
On the horizon the Cowboys have another two key players whose contracts will be expired: Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott becomes an unrestricted free agent the same year as Collins, and Elliot is to become a UFA in 2021.
Just how much more can the Cowboys look to invest in their offensive line? The club has already started on a path where the receiving options aren’t going to be heavily invested in, so there will be some savings there, but four highly-paid offensive linemen seems difficult to fathom.
A new deal of course depends on Collins playing the next two seasons like he did the last handful of games of the 2017 season. It was certainly a rough thing to watch as Collins got acclimated to the right side while facing a murderer’s row of defensive ends through the first two-thirds of the season. He faced off against Jason Pierre-Paul, Chandler Jones, Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan and Justin Houston to start things off.
Pro Football Focus was not kind in their grading over that stretch, including a -11.8 grade against the Broncos. He leveled out over the last six games of the season, but there is still plenty of work to be done.
His performance did lead to the possibility of Dallas moving him back to left guard, especially with the way Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper failed at the position last season. The possibility was escalated when Dallas signed swing tackle Cameron Fleming, who played very well at right tackle for the AFC champion New England Patriots.
Eventually Dallas would draft Texas’ tackle Connor Williams to play left guard and Collins looks to be the entrenched starter for 2018.
If he can continue his upward trend, the conversation will need to change to what happens for him after 2019, as Dallas would be dealing with a world of riches at what they consider their most important position group.
In this series, Cowboys Wire will be counting down the days until the regular season opener against the Carolina Panthers with a profile of the player whose jersey number matches the days remaining. On July 1, 71 days remain. Next up, No. 70 Zack Martin.
Cornerback Byron Jones and newly-paid defensive end Demarcus Lawrence won’t be the only big-name Dallas Cowboys sidelined until training camp, as right tackle La’el Collins is reportedly recovering from a torn rotator cuff.
According to Clarence Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Collins “will be sidelined throughout the offseason rehabbing from surgery” and “said the Cowboys plan to be cautious with him throughout OTAs and minicamp.” He apparently suffered the torn rotator cuff late in the 2018 season and had it repaired shortly after the team’s final playoff game in January.
He promises, however, to be on the field for training camp in July, per Hill.
Jones and Lawrence had already been scheduled to miss most of the Cowboys’ offseason program, with the former undergoing hip surgery in March and the latter expected to rehabilitate for three to four months from a shoulder operation. And while the pressure is on Lawrence to live up to his new $100 million contract, there might be even more on Collins, who’s entering a contract year and has produced mixed results since moving from guard to right tackle in 2017.
A coveted tackle prospect out of LSU, Collins went undrafted in 2015 after an apparent legal misunderstanding off the field before landing a three-year, fully-guaranteed deal with Dallas. After 14 starts through his first two seasons, he converted to right tackle following the retirement of Doug Free and inked a two-year extension with the Cowboys through 2019.