The Dallas Cowboys got devastated by injuries in 2020, and the offensive line was one of the hardest-hit areas. Zack Martin missed six games with a calf strain at guard, but the tackle position was ravaged even harder. Tyron Smith missed 14 games with a neck issue, and La’el Collins was out the entire season after hip surgery last October.
If the Cowboys are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018 the health of the offensive line will be one of the most vital parts. Smith and Collins returned to the practice field once OTAs began this week. However, when Pro Football Focus released it’s rankings for the top 32 offensive tackles heading into the 2021 season, they came in at 22nd and 25th respectively.
Smith isn’t any stranger to the injury report. He missed three games each season from 2016 to 2019, and with such a small sample size in 2020, it’s understandable why he ended up placing where he did.
Anthony Treash explains Smith’s spot on the list.
“Smith saw action in only two games last year due to injury, and it was a notable loss for the Cowboys. While he hadn’t been performing as he did from 2013 through 2016, when he ranked seventh or higher in PFF grade each year, Smith was still producing at a high level before he went down. In the three years prior to 2020, he was the 12th-highest-graded tackle in the entire NFL.”
The former USC Trojan had made seven consecutive Pro Bowls (2013-2019) before last season and was widely recognized as one of the best offensive tackles in the league. Although he’s entering year 11, the Cowboys are hopeful his availability going forward resembles the first five seasons of his career in which he started 79 out of 80 games.
Collins has started 61 out of the 62 games he’s played in since his rookie season. His last full campaign in 2019 was his best as he looked like one of the best right tackles in the NFL, and some felt he deserved Pro Bowl consideration.
“Along with teammate Tyron Smith, Collins was hurt in 2020 and didn’t even play a down. And while that’s a shame regardless of the circumstances, it’s even more so considering he was fresh off a breakout year in 2019. The 2015 undrafted free agent moved from guard to tackle in 2017 and struggled out of the gate, but he showed modest growth — as reflected in his three-year PFF grades of 63.3, 71.9 and 86.4. The latest mark ranks fourth-best in the NFL.”
Collins had the best stretch of his career the previous three seasons before his hip injury in which he started all 47 games he played in after only suiting up for three games in 2016. That kind of consistency is what the Cowboys are looking for in the foreseeable future from the former LSU Tiger.
Head coach Mike McCarthy is entering his second season with the Cowboys, and will undoubtedly be rooting for the health of Smith and Collins after a 6-10 showing in 2020. He spoke about both after the second day of OTAs and mentioned how good they looked coming off of their injuries.
“They both look in great shape,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “They both have been here the whole time through phases one, two and three. They’re where they need to be.”
The Cowboys will take their time getting Smith and Collins back into the fold, much like they’ll just do with Dak Prescott and Zack Martin who missed 16 games combined last season as well.
“There’s a level of caution also with them here this week and the next two weeks,” McCarthy said. “We’ll see them in the full-go manner coming training camp. But they both look great.”
Jon Machota on Twitter: “Great sign for the Cowboys to have Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins all on the field together during team drills at the start of OTAs(Photos: @dallascowboys) pic.twitter.com/l33tpydixu / Twitter”
Great sign for the Cowboys to have Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins all on the field together during team drills at the start of OTAs(Photos: @dallascowboys) pic.twitter.com/l33tpydixu
Collins is responsible for keeping edge rushers out of Prescott’s face, and Smith has an even more important job protecting his blindside, making them both critical for the success of the Cowboy’s offense in 2021.