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Progress Report: Optimism About La'el's Return?

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Editor's Note: NFL rosters changewildly from year to year. This year will be no different, as the Cowboys seek to upgrade their roster via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, a large percentage of their roster is already in place, and they'll have plenty of work to do to improve last season's 6-10 record. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will evaluate those players who are already under contract, examining their past performance and future outlook. Today, we'll continue the series with offensive tackle La'el Collins.)

The Good: Strictly speaking, "The Good" is that La'el Collins was starting to look like one of the best right tackles in football the last time he played.

The obvious problem is that the last time he played was during the 2019 season. Collins was limited by a hip injury from the outset of training camp. The Cowboys tried to put a brave face on it, hoping that Collins could work his way onto the field over the course of the season. Eventually, the injury proved to be too big of a problem.

Collins started the season on injured reserve – the first of many problems that beset the offensive line last season. He had season-ending surgery in early October, and he did not appear in a game.

The Bad: Collins' situation was one of the more frustrating aspects of an incredibly frustrating season.

Cowboys officials downplayed the severity of his status throughout training camp. Coach Mike McCarthy said the injury was "nothing serious" in August. That was only compounded by the fact that team owner/general manager Jerry Jones said "his initial problem was conditioning" later on in the year.

Naturally, it irritated fans to hear that a highly-paid veteran showed up to training camp in poor condition. But obviously, a player who required a season-ending hip injury was dealing with quite a bit more than poor playing shape.

Still, the whole thing combined to provide one of the most frustrating storylines of the season. Collins entered 2020 as a player who seemed poise to jump into the league's elite. Instead, he didn't see the field – and the Cowboys' offensive line suffered mightily for it.

That's not necessarily Collins' fault, but it was the first in a long line of tough blows.

Best of 2020: It's hard to come up with a "best of" for a guy who didn't play. If there's any kind of silver lining, it's that Collins' absence gave some guys a shot at development.

Brandon Knight and Terence Steele both faced their share of growing pains in 2020. But at the very least, the experience of replacing Collins and Tyron Smith for a full season will better prepare them to make the roster and contribute in 2021.

Contract Consideration: If he can get back to full health, Collins is one of the better bargains on this team.

Prior to the 2019 season, the front office locked him up on a five-year, $50 million extension. Considering that guys like Lane Johnson and Trent Brown are averaging $18 million and $16.5 million per season, respectively, an average salary of $10 million is a steal for a quality right tackle.

Collins is entering his seventh year with the team and is still just 27 years old. If he can return to good health, it's easy to imagine him finishing this contract – and doing so at a high level.

Obviously, it all hinges on that "if" – the ever present question of health.

What's Next: Fortunately, all of the news about Collins' recovery has been good to this point.

Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones said in January that Collins "should be ready to go" for the 2021 season. Last week, Collins' agent took to Twitter to shoot down rumors of a potential retirement, saying instead that Collins was hard at work on his recovery.

Getting Collins (and Tyron Smith) back in the lineup would be an obvious boost for the Cowboys' offensive line. At this point, it would probably be a mistake on the Cowboys' part to count on them. Whether it's with a free agent signing or a 2021 draft pick, it would be smart to invest in depth.

But currently, the early word on Collins that he'll be back in 2021 – and that would undoubtedly be huge news for the Cowboys' offensive line, and their offense as a whole.

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