Last year was far from La'el Collins best since joining the Dallas Cowboys. Though he remained the starting right tackle for most of the year, Collins goes into this 2022 offseason at a low point and with his relationship with the organization less than ideal.
After three strong years at offensive tackle from 2017-2019, Collins missed the entire 2020 season with a hip injury and eventual surgery. He was all set to return in 2021 but ran into a new obstacle as the NFL suspended him for five games for a missed drug test.
Collins fought the suspension, even filing a lawsuit against the league, but ultimately served out the full suspension from Weeks 2-6. But once he was eligible to play again, the Cowboys kept him on the bench for an additional week and allowed Terence Steele to remain the starter at right tackle.
This was not a case of simply trying to ease a player back in after an absence. Collins had played the full Week 1 game in Tampa and was only out for five weeks after that.
No, this was a sign that things had deteriorated between La'el and the team. Whether it was to just send Collins a message or genuine belief that Steele could be the better option, Dallas was clearly assessing Terence as a permanent replacement.
Collins got the starting job back following Week 7 but that also coincided with Tyron Smith injuring his ankle and missing the next three games. Had Smith stayed in the lineup, would La'el have stayed on the bench?
We'll never know for sure, but a pretty good sign came on Thanksgiving Day. With Tyron finally returning, Collins wound up back on the bench as the Cowboys again allowed Terence Steele to start at right tackle.
That embarrassing loss to the Raiders seemed to end the experiment. La'el was back as the starter the following week and kept that job the rest of the season. But now that we're heading into a new offseason, everything we saw last year has to be considered.
Where does La'el Collins really stand in 2022?
With Dallas needing to create cap space for other roster needs, our eyes quickly turn to Collins' contract. He's got a $15.2 million cap hit in 2022 with nearly $14 million in dead money left on the deal. That means minimal cap savings, just about $1.3 million, if La'el is released outright.
The Cowboys could create $10 million in cap space, pushing most of the dead money to 2023, if they make Collins a June-1st cut. But that's never as attractive as it sounds because the cap relief doesn't come until June and can't be used during the prime free agency period in March and April.
More importantly, losing Collins would mean needing to find a new starting right tackle. Signing a clear starter in free agency won't be cheap and the draft is hardly a reliable option for immediate help.
The Cowboys still have Terence Steele under contract. This will be just his third NFL season and perhaps his continued development would make him a suitable option. But after the failed effort to make him a starter in 2021, how confident will Dallas be in that prospect for next year?
This is where the team's relationship and trust with Collins is really the key issue. If he can get back to pre-2020 form, La'el is one of the best right tackles in football and a bargain at his current contract. He'll be just 29 years old this season and there's plenty of reason for optimism.
That said, even when he was on the field last year it wasn't Collins' best work. He had a career-high number of penalties per game and was clearly struggling more in pass protection than we've seen in previous seasons. Was this because of effort, attitude, recovery from the 2020 absence, or a little bit of everything?
While it may have quieted down over the last quarter of the season, whatever happened between La'el Collins and the Cowboys last year is still hanging over things. After watching Dallas try to move on from Collins in the middle of the season, his status with the team in 2022 is far from secure.