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Helman: Diving Into The Weeds Of An OL Shuffle


FRISCO, Texas – When you offer your opinion for a living, you're going to whiff from time to time. Even still, this feels like one of my bigger misses in recent memory.

From the time his suspension was announced way back in Week 1, I had assumed La'el Collins would ease right back into his starting right tackle job when his time had been served.

To be fair to Collins, he technically still might. True to form, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy tried to be vague about the current situation with Collins and Terence Steele, saying only that Steele would continue to practice as the Cowboys' starting right tackle while Collins flipped between tackle and guard.

And yet, the fact that the Cowboys would experiment with moving Collins back to guard, where he hasn't played since 2016, is telling. It stands out even more when you remember what McCarthy said just 11 months ago when he was asked about moving Zack Martin from guard to tackle.

"I think it's fantasy football nonsense, unless you have 10 veteran offensive linemen on your football team that you can interchange like that," McCarthy said at the time.

I guess it's also fair to point out that McCarthy has a lot more talent to work with in 2021 than he did when he made that remark. In addition to the emergence of Steele as a reliable right tackle, he has Ty Nsekhe offering depth in addition to Collins.

Still, it sure does make you wonder about a variety of things.

For starters, where on Earth did all this depth come from?

You know how you'll occasionally wake up from a nightmare, panting and panicking at the vivid horror of it all, only to forget the details of the dream within 15-20 minutes? That's how I'm starting to feel about the 2020 season, when Steele, Brandon Knight and Cameron Erving were starting – not because they had impressed anyone, but because the depth chart was one long injury report.

It was already a fantastic story that Steele had improved enough to hold his own at right tackle. The fact that he might be good enough to hold off a guy with 64 NFL starts is another matter entirely.

The idea has already been thrown around that the Cowboys simply want to make Collins earn his place in the starting lineup. After all, he has been available just once since the 2019 season, and his lengthy suspension and appeals process with the NFL brought plenty of undue attention on the organization.

Given that Steele has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2021 season, it makes total sense if the Cowboys want to reward his hard work, while also asking Collins to earn his way back into his old place.

As interesting a story as that will be in the coming weeks, it takes on added significance if the change is permanent.

The Cowboys will be a team with a lot of financial decisions to make in 2022. Most of that revolves around players that are out of contract. But is it remotely possible that the emergence of Steele could help them save money. The undrafted free agent's entire contract is worth a mere $2.3 million, whereas Collins' 2022 cap hit is a whopping $15.2 million.

This is where I break out my "Jump To Conclusions" mat, but all I'm saying is that a post-June 1 cut or trade or Collins could net Dallas $10 million in cap space. Do I think that will happen? Not really. But these are the ideas that come to mind when a seven-year veteran with a $50 million contract winds up on the bench.

Let's also not forget the third member of this juggling act. If the Cowboys want La'el Collins to work at guard for the first time since 2016, what does that mean for Connor Williams?

Even on a team that has won five-straight games, there always has to be a Public Enemy No. 1 among fans and media. With Jaylon Smith off to Green Bay and Anthony Brown enjoying a strong run of play, that's undoubtedly Williams right now.

The fourth-year veteran has been flagged nine times on the season – highlighted by an ugly outing against New England that saw him draw three holding penalties, not to mention a fourth flag for unsportsmanlike conduct when he got fed up and threw one of those aforementioned penalty flags in frustration.

For the record, I think Williams has played well this season, with that rough outing in New England serving as an outlier to this point. But experimenting with Collins at guard could afford the coaching staff a chance to pursue that beloved adage of Football Guys everywhere, "The Best Five."

If Collins can prove himself a better guard than Williams in the coming days and weeks, perhaps it's Williams who finds himself out of the starting lineup. You could even take this another level deeper and suggest that, if Collins were to become the Cowboys' starting left guard, perhaps it would free up Williams to focus more on playing center – which is another spot on the depth chart that could at least use some added competition.

Obviously, I'm about 19 yards in front of reality right now. All we really know for sure right now is that the coaching staff wants La'el Collins to pull some extra job duty. We can learn the rest as we go.

It's awfully encouraging, though, and for multiple reasons. It's borderline unthinkable that an NFL team has enough offensive line depth that it would have a Pro Bowl-caliber player cross-train at another position, and it's incredibly impressive that the Cowboys' coaching staff would be willing to make that ask in order to look for the best results possible.

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