Hoping to reload and bounce back from a disappointing 2020 season driven mostly by the lack of an offseason and a multitude of injuries that turned them into mostly a Pop Warner team, the Dallas Cowboys are readying for mandatory minicamp with Dak Prescott back under center and his starting edge protectors completely healthy as well. Tyron Smith and La'El Collins are both a "full go for training camp" next month, so while they've not been fully allowed to jump back into the mix just yet, the fact there have been no setbacks puts them and the entire offense in position to try and regain its No. 1 status -- where it was ranked the last two seasons prior to losing Prescott.
Also important to note is the return of Zack Martin, now healthy himself after being injured late in the season.
It all sets the stage for what will be a pivotal season in the otherwise illustrious career of Smith, a potential Hall of Famer who's battled availability issues for several seasons now. His injuries have been mostly manageable leading into 2020, with the perennial Pro Bowler having missed no more than three starts in the four seasons prior after having missed only one before 2016. His nagging neck issues (stingers) finally drove Smith to make a decision: continue fighting through them and potentially shorten his career, or have surgery and potentially lengthen it. It came down to missing the rest of 2020 or constantly missing games at times in the seasons to come, and he chose to get the issue fixed once and for all.
He'd ultimately miss 14 games last season, but says he feels better than he ever has and expects to be ready for the long ride, which now includes a 17th regular season game.
"Honestly feeling great," Smith told media, via the team's website. "Finally got the neck fixed, and I think that kind of connected to everything with the back."
That last part is key, because he's also fought through back issues like herniated discs. This means, presumably, Smith is quite literally healthier than he's been in more than half a decade, hence the absence of any braces as well at OTAs (something he's become known for wearing due to the sheer size of them).
"I'm glad I finally got it fixed after all these years," he added. "It just was about being smart about it, and if I want to keep playing longer then I'd have to get the surgery. And I do want to keep playing as long as I can. So it was a good thing to get the surgery done, so I don't have to worry about that anymore."
With back and neck issues come a decline in strength as well, although rarely noticeable in a specimen like Smith. But that's the reality, and not only has Smith regained whatever strength he might've lost in recent seasons, he's now exceeding it.
"I mean my strength is back -- or probably better than it was, since I've just been sitting here working out," he said.
A four-time All-Pro and member of the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team saying he's stronger than ever is an omen to edge rushers around the league, and a reason for a spiked optimism within the Cowboys organization, which opted against using a premium pick at the position and instead selected linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round. Things are also looking promising for Smith's compatriot on the opposite edge, with Collins making it clear he's also in the same space physically -- i.e., better shape going into this year's training camp.
"I feel good right now," said Collins. "I feel a lot lighter. I've been doing everything with [trainer Britt Brown]. I work with my coaches in individual drills and stuff like that, working with the strength program.
"I feel really good. Really excited right now."
As it turns out, although Collins logged 47 starts from 2017 through 2019, he too was dealing with a nagging issue. It was his hip, and it became a bigger issue as time went on, to the point he became concerned he'd do major damage if he continued to push through it. So, prior to Smith making the same decision a few weeks later, Collins shut himself down and underwent hip surgery to permanently repair the ailment.
"It was something that had been lingering for a little while," Collins noted. "Just couldn't get down what was going on. I kept working at it and kept working on it, but just it wouldn't give. And it came to a point where I needed to get down and get it fixed. So, I look forward to this season.
"... I feel good and ready to rock."
There are rumors Collins' weight was a factor, which isn't entirely untrue, and he's taken steps to shed some while keeping his strength and anchor intact. It should make for quicker feet and a more easily manipulated core when he's executing techniques, while asking less of his hips. It wasn't something the Cowboys mandated or even suggested, but rather something Collins felt needed to happen to stay healthy and return to form.
"I played at about 323 [pounds]," Collins said. "So, I'm about 10 pounds under, and for me, my mindset is just to get down into the 308, 309 [range] -- somewhere around there and just fluctuate between there and about 315, something like that. It was kind of my idea, just coming from running and working out a lot. I shed a lot of weight.
"So, for me, it just feels good to be light and my strength is still there. I'm just going to continue to lean out and just keep my strength, keep building."
As for why his weight buoyed a year ago, it was the obvious: players being banned from team facilities and from having access to team trainers as the NFL attempted to navigate the pandemic. It led to a rash of severe injuries around the league, and Collins was simply another victim of it -- by virtue of him trying to balance training with being careful in the absence of Brown and others on the Cowboys training staff.
"Yeah, just because I couldn't train the way I wanted to, because I kind of had to manage myself just because I didn't know exactly what was going on," he said. "So, now that it's behind me, I'm able to just go, and I'm able to just go and it feels good."
Both Smith and Collins have the added motivation of seeing what Prescott battled back from, namely a season-ending compound fracture to his ankle that required one surgery to repair and saw him opt for a second to strengthen it beyond it's pre-injury form. And while all the world planted its eyes firmly on not only the progress of Prescott, but also his contract status, the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback was hard at work behind the scenes with his teammates -- making up for lost time.
"Me and Dak, we've been at it with Britt this whole offseason," said Collins. "It's been great, man, just seeing him, how far he's come. I remember seeing him the first day he was out there just kind of walking through everything that we had been doing to running to me trying to keep up with him. Just seeing how fast he recovered. It just seemed like everyday he just got better.
"Still, everyday, it's like, wow, you really — I remember on his first day to now. It's night and day."
So, is Prescott truly, truly back?
"You just see it," Collins said of his quarterback's progress. "You just see everything that he's doing. He's tough. He pushed through.
"He's a big-time leader. He's -- man, it just gives me chills to think about it because he [doesn't] complain about anything that bothers him. He finds a way to keep grinding, keep pushing through. That goes a long way with guys, especially when there's been days when we've been out there, and, man, it's a tough day.
"But he keeps going and it makes everybody else just want to keep on, especially me when I see that guy. That's who I do it for. I do it for that guy. ...I'll protect him at all costs."
That cost was surgery last summer, and with the invoice now paid, both he and Smith can make good on that promise.