Could this be the start of something big? The beginning of a one-two punch on the right side of the Cowboys' offensive line that could raise an already heralded unit to even greater heights?
That's what the Cowboys are hoping for. Gone is Doug Free, the wise elder who served as leader for one of the best, if not the best offensive line in the league. In his place, the team has begun working La'el Collins at right offensive tackle this offseason.
It's a change that comes with some uncertainty. The Cowboys knew what they had in Free after all, while Collins still has something to prove. Regardless, Dallas is fairly confident that the transition will be a success simply because of the steady constant who remains on that right side – guard Zack Martin.
"When I came in, Doug was a huge help to me, just being that veteran and knowing what to do," said Martin. "I'm going to try to do that for La'el and communicate with him and help him out as much as possible."
Although Martin has already earned two All-Pro honors and three trips to the Pro Bowl in his short career, each of those efforts came with Free by his side. With OTAs underway, he's now playing the role of mentor despite this being only his fourth season in the NFL.
"It's a little different to be out there, obviously," said Martin. "I played three years with (Doug), but you know, La'el has done a great job to start off OTAs. We're learning how to play next to each other and how to block with each other. It's a fun, new experience."
Collins starred for LSU at left tackle, earning top lineman honors in the SEC after his senior year, but in order to fill a need, he was moved to left guard once he joined the Cowboys in 2015. There he shined during his rookie campaign, at times reminding some of Hall of Famer Larry Allen, but last season was a bit of a disappointment. Collins seemingly struggled even before a toe injury in the third game sidelined him for the remainder of the 2016 schedule.
Now, Collins is looking to rebound from his sophomore slump, and the original assumption was that he would do so while staying where he is most comfortable – on the inside at left guard following Ron Leary's departure in free agency. Instead, Collins is coming back to a new position, albeit with one of the best in the business there to help.
"Playing on the right side, it feels really good, especially having Zack alongside me," said Collins. "A guy like that, he's a beast, so having him alongside me makes it even better."
They key now is for these two talented players to simply get used to one another. While the trenches often appear to be a free-for-all of big men making big hits, there is a certain choreography and teamwork needed among linemates.
"Absolutely, especially guys who are working together," said Martin. "Myself and La'el are doing a lot of blocks and combinations together. It takes a lot of reps to really get that right. We're looking forward to using this time [during OTAs] to get those reps and then take them to training camp and get ready for the year."
"The chemistry is there," Collins agreed. "Now it's just getting as many reps as we can together, and just going out there and working every day, putting it all together, focusing on the little things and just going from there."
For Martin, that focus will have to come despite the anticipation of a new contract extension. The Cowboys have let it be known that they plan to keep their star lineman around for the long term, and the expectation is that a deal will get done sometime during training camp. Earlier this month, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones was quoted as saying, "When you're dealing with top players like Zack, usually these things aren't that difficult if everybody's got some form of reasonability."
True to form, though, Martin doesn't seem worried about the situation, and is definitely not going to let it affect the work he needs to do on the field and with Collins.
"No, not at all. I'm not worrying about it at all," Martin said. "We're here to play football and to get ready for the season."
A season that will now include some new faces to go along with Martin and fellow Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith at left tackle and center Travis Frederick. In the end, with two openings to fill along the front, the Cowboys may just go with their top five linemen, meaning there is still the slim chance that Collins could land back at guard if that's what is best for the team. Needless to say, it's a good problem to have.[embeddedad0]
"It's amazing. I've never been a part of a group of guys like these guys," Collins said. "Guys that just know how to work, come in every day, get it done and do the job. These guys have helped me become a pro. These guys have showed me how to be a pro. I just take what they show me and I apply it every day."
"You know, obviously we lost two great players," said Martin of Free and Leary, "but the guys who have stepped in these first couple of days have done a nice job. We're all learning to play together, and like I said, this time is to learn how to do that.
"But we have a ton of confidence. We have a ton of good guys in our room, and a lot of depth, which is great. … Now it just takes, reps and reps and reps. That's what we're doing right now."