IRVING, Texas – This time last year, La'el Collins was an NFL prospect who had just finished the Scouting Combine. A year later, with nearly a full season as an NFL starter, he has proven he can play at the pro level.
The goal now is improving on his solid first season with the Cowboys – specifically, the small things that make a consistent pro.
"For me as a young player, I haven't even scratched the surface of the real complete player I want to become," he said the day after the 2015 season ended.
Collins became the Cowboys' full-time left guard in Week 7 against the Giants and ended up starting 11 games. He made several remarkable athletic and physical plays: big-time downfield blocks on Seattle's Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas; outrunning teammate Darren McFadden on his 45-yard gain against Green Bay.
But for every highlight-reel play, Collins can point to assignments he could have executed better, like his holding call in a Week 16 loss to Buffalo that wiped out Terrance Williams' fourth-quarter touchdown with the Cowboys trailing 9-6.
"A bunch of them," he said. "When I look at it, I look at maybe a play on second down where I could have held my blocks longer and made it better for us in the third-down situation, things like that that can help the team win.
"Those small things, things like that I'm going to be really focusing on that I don't make those mistakes next year."
Collins began his rookie season as the backup to Ronald Leary, a two-year starter at left guard. The Cowboys' offensive line developed a special chemistry in 2014 with a dominant collective effort that led to three Pro Bowl selections: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
By the bye week, the Cowboys decided Collins was ready to join the starting five. He hadn't played guard since his sophomore year at LSU, having moved to left tackle as a junior.
There were expected growing pains. But by season's end the Cowboys' line once again graded out as the league's best unit, according to Pro Football Focus, despite Tony Romo and Dez Bryant missing so much time with injuries.
"This year we didn't throw the ball as effectively, so the challenges running the football were greater this year and I still thought we were effective and efficient running the ball," head coach Jason Garrett said. "I think it starts with those guys up front.
"L.C. was the new guy in there for most of the year. I thought he grew as the year went on. And I thought that unit grew as the year went on. They're getting better and better. They go about it the right way and they play the right way."
The Cowboys' offseason program starts April 18. When Collins gets back to work with his teammates, he won't be an untested rookie this time.[embeddedad0]
"I think just being able to have that experience just puts you in a position to where you know what you're getting yourself into," he said. "This offseason is going to be huge just preparing the right way and just coming back to work and getting ready to roll for next season. Just really focusing on everything I need to do personally to prepare myself to be the best that I can for next year."