FRISCO, Texas – Judging by his play these last two games, maybe La'el Collins shouldn't be practicing this week.
After all, the Cowboys' right tackle has played arguably his best games of the season these past two weeks – despite missing six days of practice with a back injury. The problem was bad enough to throw his availability into question – and yet Collins managed the issue well enough to shut out top-tier pass rushers like Ryan Kerrigan and Jason Pierre-Paul in wins against Washington and New York.
"The nature of the National Football League is guys get banged up," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett earlier this week. "You have to be able to function when the conditions aren't ideal, and he's done a good job of that the last couple of weeks."
All jokes aside, the extra reps can only help Collins in what figures to be another challenging matchup. Considering the injuries that both he and Tyron Smith have been dealing with in the second half of the season, it had to be a boost to have both of them at practice on Thursday.
"It felt great just to be out there," Collins said. "The last two weeks I haven't been able to do that, and it just felt good to get out there and work on my stuff."
Again, any extra practice time Collins can get should help him this week. Sunday night's game in Oakland figures to pit him against a two-time All-Pro in Khalil Mack, who is currently sitting on 8.5 sacks.
Mack is a big name among NFL pass rushers, but this shouldn't be anything intimidating for Collins. Looking back through his assignments this season, the third-year pro has faced a who's who of elite sack artists – guys like Von Miller, Vic Beasley, Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram, Kerrigan and Pierre-Paul.
In fact, if you total it all up, Collins' opponents this season have tallied 23 combined Pro Bowl appearances and nine first-team All-Pro selections. That's experience he's grateful to have as he rounds at his first season on the right side.
"It's awesome. It's made me a better player, definitely, from Day 1," he said. "I was tested early – J.P.P, Von, all those guys. The next game is a different cat, a different guy. I've really played against some of the best, or the best guys in the league this year."
Collins' growth has been pretty obvious to those that have been watching. It's easy to think back to that Week 2 loss in Denver, watching Miller careening around the right side down after down. And even though he's not yet finished playing his first season in this position, Collins can tell the difference between now and then quite easily.
"It's night and day – night and day, man," he said. "Just through the whole process, the whole season – just being able to go against those types of players helped develop my game even faster. You can't sit back and wait, you've got to be ready to go now."
It seems fair to say Collins is ready to go, given the solid work he's done without much preparation. His return to practice comes at a great time, because this might be his toughest challenge to date.
"The more reps you can get – offensive line play is all about reps and repetitions," he said. "The more reps you get, the better you'll be."