CANTON, Ohio — A lot of the focus in football these days is on its problems, especially when it comes to player safety.
La’el Collins’ story is one of the exceptions.
Collins has entrenched himself as a linchpin on the Dallas Cowboys offensive line, shifting from left guard to right tackle for this season. He saw his first “real” game action at that position Thursday night here at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in the Cowboys’ 20-18 Hall of Fame game win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The former LSU and Redemptorist High star was scheduled to make “only” $616,750 this season — a lot of money to you and me, but a pittance for an NFL starter. On July 25, the Cowboys eliminated the chance that Collins would become a restricted free agent in 2018 by signing him to a two-year, $15.4 million extension through 2019.
Collins, you may recall, was set to be a surefire first-round draft pick in 2015. But shortly before that year’s draft, reports circulated that police wanted to speak to him concerning the death of a former girlfriend.
His draft stock tumbled. Collins went undrafted, eventually signing a three-year, $1.6 million free-agent deal with Dallas. It was a gamble at the time for the Cowboys by any measure.
Collins isn’t shy about saying that he has earned the new contract. His name was cleared; his game soared. Say what you will about the exorbitant salaries of professional athletes, but if people are being paid huge salaries, Collins should be one of them.
“It’s a lot of hard work put in,” Collins said after Thursday’s game. “Nothing is given. (If) you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, good things happen to you. That’s how it’s been since I’ve been here.”
The position change is a major wrinkle for Collins to deal with, but perhaps compared to his previous personal travails, it’s nothing for the former LSU left tackle to handle.
“It feels good to get out there and get reps at right tackle,” Collins said. “I want to do that more in the preseason and keep it going.”
If Collins’ future with the Cowboys is set for the foreseeable future, Lewis Neal was one of those many players on the Dallas and Arizona sidelines Thursday night trying to make an impression that will allow them to stay on the roster for the coming season.
A free-agent signee like Collins, Neal got to play some significant minutes in reserve for the Cowboys. He wasn’t credited with a tackle, lamenting that he missed out on a sack that could have been one of those highlights that sticks in the minds of the Cowboys’ coaches and front office when roster cuts come.
“I feel I can keep doing better and keep making more strides,” Neal said. “The first preseason game is out of the way now. The jitters are out. Now it’s time to keep improving every day from this game.”
He has a real chance to make the team. Not as rock solid a role as Collins has, mind you, but a real chance. Especially in the wake of suspensions to defensive linemen Damontre Moore and David Irving for two and four regular-season games, respectively. If Neal doesn’t land a permanent spot this season on the 53-man roster, his prospects for at least making the practice squad are improving.
“I’m just soaking it in,” Neal said. “This is my dream. I’m going to do what I can to get better.”
Part of getting better is taking tips from Collins, whom he squares off against often in practice.
“He’s doing well and working really hard,” Collins said. “If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll be all right.”
“We talk. We compete all the time,” Neal said. “He helps me out with things I need to know.”
Collins, the wise veteran, who’s finally getting the financial reward he deserved all along.