La'el Collins has been back in the building for the Dallas Cowboys for weeks now, but he'll officially be allowed back on the practice field in a few days. The veteran right tackle has been absent since the conclusion of the Week 1 battle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- saddled with a five-game suspension that devolved into a federal lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed just ahead of the Week 6 matchup with the New England Patriots. It's been backup tackle Terence Steele protecting the right side of Dak Prescott in his stead, and Steele has exceeded expectations in a major way.
Steele, a former undrafted free agent who joined the Cowboys in 2020, struggled mightily as a rookie tasked with taking on the starting role due to season-ending injuries to both Collins and Tyron Smith, and there was very real concern outside of the organization if Steele could hold up for more than a month this time around. Fast forward to the Cowboys bye week and Steele has solidified himself as the definitive swing tackle in Dallas, and is generating conversation on if Collins should regain his role as starter.
For his part, offensive line coach Joe Philbin won't lean in one direction or the other, instead choosing to praise Steele while reminding everyone just how good Collins truly is.
"I think Terence played – I'm throwing out a broad number, 1,000 plays maybe last year," said Philbin this week. "He played a bunch of football for us. I think he's improved. I think he's gotten better.
"He's a very, very hard-working individual. So I'm certainly pleased with the contribution he's made. I'm excited to have La'el back with us and looking forward to working with him. And as we get ready for Minnesota we'll prepare these guys to play and then Coach [Mike] McCarthy will make a decision that's in the best interest of the team.
"But excited to have La'el back for sure. He did a good job in the Tampa Bay game and looking forward to working with him again."
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As noted, Collins (a former undrafted free agent himself) has been in the building and conditioning during his suspension, so Philbin isn't concerned about that part of the equation whatsoever.
"Yeah, I mean, he's been here," said Philbin, still needing to get Collins on the field next week to see exactly how ready he might be to take the field on Oct. 31 against the Minnesota Vikings. "I haven't been with him working on the field obviously for five weeks. So it's going to be important when we get back here to get on the field together and see where he's at. But all the reports are good. He feels good.
"I've seen him in the meetings, communicated with him. I'm looking forward to getting back on the practice field with him."
It's all sentiment echoed by owner Jerry Jones.
"Our team is fortunate to have [Collins] back," the Hall of Fame owner told 105.3FM the Fan. "It's great to have him back. I know it is been a real challenge for him not being on that football field in many, many ways. But he is an outstanding football player, recognized as that all over the NFL.
"And, boy, anytime you can help your team, especially your offensive line, you got to use it."
Jones went on to note what a great problem it is to be having the Collins vs. Steele debate only six games into a season that saw them enter with a massive void at swing tackle. The Cowboys signed veteran Ty Nsehke to help in that regard, but Nsehke recently missed several games with a heat-related illness and failed to impress in training camp and preseason, and having lost Mitch Hyatt to injury only hurt their depth further. But to be comfortable enough toward the end of October to risk Brandon Knight to waivers -- losing him to the Baltimore Ravens -- shows just how confident the Cowboys are with their O-line group going forward.
And Jones couldn't be more pleased with the progression Steele has made.
"You couldn't have drawn up somebody that took advantage and just before your eyes get better and better in practice than [Terence] Steele," he said. "So, we got a great situation there. In my view, of course, you have La'el come in here and that's the way that we do it normally is the incumbent does have his position. Now, that's not a golden rule at all. But I would see before we're through having both of them out there quite a bit every game."
How much playing time Collins sees in his first game back will ultimately be driven by how good he does or does not look when the Cowboys return to practice on Wednesday, thanks to Steele giving the team the ability to avoid making a decision out of desperation. In other words, if Collins looks fantastic, Steele will likely concede the starting role immediately. If Collins needs time to reacclimate after playing in just one game this season, Steele will see the bulk of the reps.
And the Cowboys will then revisit the situation for Week 8.