FRISCO, Texas – At several different stops along the offseason path, Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team’s preference was to keep La’el Collins at left guard in 2017.
The Cowboys opened their on-field teaching sessions last week and Collins worked solely at right tackle.
It doesn’t sound like a temporary move.
"He wants me to start there and hit it full speed,” Collins said Sunday as the Cowboys and the North Texas Food Bank hosted the Taste of the Cowboys event at the Ford Center at The Star. “We’ll see where it goes.”
The Cowboys have a vacancy at right tackle with the retirement of Doug Free. The Cowboys had Chaz Green, a third-round pick in 2015, and signed free agent Byron Bell in line to replace Free, but Collins, who has started 14 games in his first two seasons at left guard, is apparently getting the first crack.
Collins saw a little bit of work at tackle as a rookie in 2015 but he was moved to guard almost immediately. He started 11 games and the first three last year before his season ended with a toe injury.
The Cowboys will hold their second week of teaching sessions in which the offense and defense do not compete against each other. By putting Collins at tackle now, they are giving him a chance to ease into the position knowing he could move back to guard if he struggles or if Green, who has been slowed by injuries his first two seasons, or Bell prove capable of winning the job.
With Collins at tackle, Jonathan Cooper has worked at left guard with the first team line.
Leading into the 2015 draft, Collins was viewed by some teams as a tackle – he played left tackle his final two seasons at LSU – or guard.
“For me, man, it’s weird. I just kind of feel like I can play anywhere,” Collins said. “I feel like I can play all the positions other than center. I don’t know if I can do that. Travis [Frederick] has got a tough job. It’s harder than it looks. But I feel like I can play anywhere and just the mentality of I don’t care where I am, whoever’s in front of me I’m going to move him off the ball and that’s how it’s going to be done.”
Collins said his toe is 100 percent and does not require any extra rest. He said he will continue to wear a plate in his cleat for added protection, perhaps for the rest of his career. Listed at 315 pounds, Collins said he has lost 4 percent body fat (down from 22 percent) and added 5 percent of muscle.
“Head down, just working, that’s really what my life has been consisting of since I got hurt,” Collins said. “I turned it into an offseason [early], just putting the work in.”
Collins’ tackle experience in college will help his transition. So will playing between right guard Zack Martin, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, and tight end Jason Witten, a 10-time Pro Bowler.
“Zack, I mean he’s the best in the business,” Collins said. “Him and Travis, those guys have helped me become the best pro [along] with me figuring this thing out. It’s great playing on the side of Zack and Witten. [Witten] hasn’t been there as much as we get started, but I’m pretty sure as we go on we’ll be on the side of each other more.”
Free started every game he played in 2010-16, including 60 straight games at right tackle. On a line with decorated players like Tyron Smith, Frederick and Martin, he was often overlooked, but he was the leader of the group.
Free had a retirement party last week in which he said goodbye but also left Collins with a message: keep working.
“Actually I forgot how good it felt to be on the edge out there, out there on that island,” Collins said. “We haven’t done too much yet. We’re working plays against air. That’s it. But it feels good.”