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Return of La’el Collins brings drama to Cowboys’ offensive line

The Dallas Cowboys have welcomed La’el Collins back from a 5-game suspension but he doesn’t appear to have an immediate spot in the starting lineup upon his return.

DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys are getting back to work as they prepare for the trip to Minnesota to take on the Vikings on Sunday night. After a week off, the team has seen players recuperate from injury and, in offensive lineman La’el Collins’ case, receive reinstatement from suspension.

In the five weeks that Collins missed, understudy Terence Steele has played well at right tackle. Yet the expectations were that when Collins came off his suspension, he would return to his place in the starting lineup and Steele would go back to being the swing tackle as part of the blossoming depth along the line.

That does not appear to be the case, as head coach Mike McCarthy laid out in his press conference. The Cowboys appear ready to ride the hot hand.

While it’s understandable to want to work Collins back into football shape, the decision is still surprising. When Collins has made it onto the field, he has performed like one of the better tackles in the league.

However, Steele held his own in Collins’ place and has earned the right to stay on as the starter, at least until the veteran has his legs back underneath him. Steele has gone up against some of the best edge rushers in the game over the past five games and stayed up to the task. It’s not easy taking on Joey Bosa, Brian Burns, or Matthew Judon, but Steele did so and was able to keep quarterback Dak Prescott upright.

Since this is the Cowboys, there is also more to the story. Even with Steele exceeding expectations, Collins is the better player. We don’t know why the coaches are keeping Collins behind Steele on the depth chart for now, but it’s fair to wonder if the team is trying to send a message to Collins after his suspension. 

The bigger news from McCarthy might be that Collins will be working at guard in addition to tackle. The position isn’t new to Collins, who started 14 games at left guard to begin his career, but the move feels like an odd one. Collins was decent during his time at guard, but he’s proven to be a better right tackle since making the move. 

Right now, the only guard spot up for debate is left guard, currently manned by Connor Williams. Dallas isn’t going to replace their best offensive lineman, right guard Zack Martin, so the only possible move is to replace Williams with Collins.

If the Cowboys are trying to get their five best offensive lineman on the field, moving Collins might be the answer. Collins doesn’t have to be a great guard; he just has to be better at it than Williams by the estimation of the team.

Of course, it’s possible that this is a big fuss over nothing. Collins needs time to work back into playing shape and the Cowboys are favoring continuity for a week or two until Collins is full-go. In a way, this might be an abbreviated training camp for Collins and the Cowboys are making sure he doesn’t get hurt by going too fast, too quickly in his return.

Whatever the reason, at 5-1 and with steady line play, trust must be placed in the Cowboys and offensive line coach Joe Philbin, who has had a big part of the development of Steele. If the team feels that they can get the best five offensive linemen in the game by putting Collins at guard and keeping Steele at tackle, then they must have the conviction that it can work.

The Cowboys have no shortage of storylines coming out of their bye week and the right tackle saga between Collins and Steele appears to be the biggest one. Only time will tell if Dallas is making the right call at right tackle.

Do you think sticking with Steele as the hot hand at right tackle is the right choice for the Cowboys? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.