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Cowboys' Rookie Starters Have Embraced Opportunity, Areas For Improvement

IRVING, Texas – Thirteen games in, Byron Jones and La'el Collins have played the equivalent of a full college season and bowl game.

Three games remain in their rookie NFL seasons, and both have shouldered starting responsibilities for much of the year – Collins for nine games at left guard, Jones for seven games at safety and cornerback.

As expected, both have gone through first-year growing pains. But the team has been pleased with their approach.

Jones, a first-round pick last April, has been willing to play either spot in the defensive secondary. Promoted to first-team free safety in November, Jones has started five games there and two games in between for an injured Mo Claiborne.

With Orlando Scandrick on injured reserve as he recovers from the torn ACL he suffered in training camp, Jones, a combo defensive back at UConn, has provided insurance at cornerback when needed. He leads the defense with 12 pass breakups and says he studies each week from the perspective of both positions in case he's asked to play either spot in a game.

Head coach Jason Garrett said the team eventually would like for Jones to settle in at one position, but he continues to be impressed with the way the 23-year-old has juggled multiple roles.

"I think it's a really good thing to be able to do it," Garrett said, "and I think that's something we've really been very aware of since we've gotten him here, that very question: Have we not given him a chance to succeed at either spot if we move him spot to spot? But he's never shown any hesitation to be able to handle it. He embraces it and I think he plays well at both spots.

"It's not ideal. You have to be able to get your players in the right spots and you have to be able to get the right guys out there to absorb injuries over the course of the year. He's been the piece that has allowed us to do that."

Collins has made highlight reels this year with remarkable athletic plays: moving Seattle's Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas yards up the field with downfield blocks in Week 8; his 315-pound frame outrunning Darren McFadden on a 45-yard gain this past Sunday against Green Bay.

Collins takes pride in those hustle plays, which flash the physicality and unique agility that made him a first-round talent.

"A lot of pride, especially with the offensive line play," he said. "We're kind of just the quiet guys who kind of sit back and try to handle things up front. Any time you get a chance to get out there in space and get up on there in the second level, you kind of want to go out there and make sure you're doing it at a high level."

With eight straight starts at left guard since he moved into the lineup full-time in late October, Collins has gotten on-the-job training toward becoming a complete offensive lineman play to play, week to week.

"I think he's getting better and better as a football player," Garrett said. "He's had those plays that are very impressive. He has a really good ability to get out in space, block guys and stay on the move and block other guys. We've seen that throughout the year. Not every lineman is capable of doing that, so he's done a good job of that and those are important things to be able to do.

"He also has to improve on the play-by-play in the run game, in his pass protection. I think if you look at him over the course of the season he's improved greatly in those areas and I think he's maturing as a player. It's a tribute to him and the approach he takes and what (offensive line coach) Frank (Pollack) is doing with him. Just him looking at himself and seeing where he needs to get better and focusing on those things, and I think he's improved."

Collins began the season as a reserve behind Ronald Leary, the team's starting left guard from 2013-14. He made his first career start for an injured Leary in Week 3 and was named the starter a month later.

Like Jones, Collins hasn't been perfect. But the highly-touted rookie has never seemed overwhelmed.

"One of the things that you always look for is, is the game feeling fast; is he not able to use what his dominant traits are, which in LC's case is his physicalness; is the newness of the environment slowing him down and taking away what he does best," Garrett said. "And I think if we look back at the snaps he's played over the course of the season, I don't know that it's ever been the case.

"He's made mistakes, he's been in situations he hasn't been confronted with before. Whether it's a technique mistake or a mental mistake – he's certainly has had a few of those over the course of his time this year. But I don't know that that edge and that physicalness has ever gone away from his game, and I think that's a positive. He keeps playing and you coach him hard and he learns from the experience, and hopefully over time he gets better. I think that's what's happened with him."

Jones has improved, too, as the Cowboys continue building a foundation for both rookies to contribute for many years in the future.

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