La'el Collins has played 61 games over three seasons at right tackle for the Dallas Cowboys. Though the 6-4, 320-pound offensive lineman has provided a stable starter for Dallas, Collins believes his best years are yet to come.
"I feel my most successful years are just ahead of me, to be honest," Collins said. "I feel like last year was just the scratch of it, just the beginning to be honest."
The former 2015 undrafted free agent is left-handed and was naturally suited to play left tackle, as he did for LSU in college. In his first two years with the Cowboys, Jason Garrett's coaching staff plugged Collins in at left guard, another lefty position. With the retirement of Doug Free after 2016, the Cowboys kicked Collins out to be the bookend opposite of All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith.
"Switching over, I had to get in tune with technique and really understand footwork and just where my body needs to be and stuff like that," said Collins. "I think once, as I continue to get more and more reps over the years, I feel like that's what kind popped out last year and I'm just going to build off that."
Collins, who signed a five-year contract extension with Dallas at the end of 2019 preseason, has missed time in training camp due to a minor injury and also a car wreck on Aug. 20 where he had to be cut out of his vehicle. However, Collins doesn't feel behind from missing a week's worth of practices.
Said Collins: "Just taking a pass set, taking a step, run blocking all that stuff, just competing, just being in that atmosphere. When you're sitting back watching it you can't really do too much. It makes you realize how much you really love it. I had a great chance to get back out there.”
The 27-year-old is one of four starters who played at least 10 games to return to the offensive line. Still regarded as one of the best blocking units in the league due to stalwarts in Smith and All-Pro right guard Zack Martin, the line took a big hit in the offseason with the sudden retirement of All-Pro center Travis Frederick. The club could turn to Joe Looney as their starting center, just as they did in 2018 when he replaced Frederick, who was lost for the year as he recovered from Guillain–Barré syndrome.
In Collins' first two seasons, he played next to a future Hall of Famer in Smith. For the past three seasons, Collins has been next to another future Hall of Famer in Martin, and the right tackle knows he has to bring the same intensity as Martin, who Collins claims never gets beat.
"It feels good to have somebody like that next to you," said Collins. "That makes me feel like I need to bring that same energy, which I feel like I always do but I feel like I need to bring even more. I know how hard he’s working. So I need to work just as hard, if not harder. That’s what you get when you play on the offensive line and you’ve got guys that want to go to war and want to do things together."
What all five starters want to do is propel the Cowboys further than they have been since 1996: the NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys have a key piece at the top in new coach Mike McCarthy, who led the Green Bay Packers to the game four times from 2006-2018 along with a Super Bowl victory. If Collins has one of his best years to date at right tackle, it could be one of the grains of success to tip the scales in the Cowboys' favor.
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