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Weekly Lineman: What went wrong in La’el Collins’ return to Dallas

Not the homecoming Collins was hoping for.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Kareem Elgazzar-The Enquirer

There was something cathartic about the Cincinnati Bengals signing La’el Collins in free agency.

Player acquisitions nowadays can become spectacles in ways not thought possible just a short while ago. The NFL as a whole experienced a multitude of groundbreaking trades and premier player signings to the point where the league as a whole practically got a facelift.

With Collins, there was a little bit of everything. The mystery of why his former team was so willing to part ways with him in the midst of a sizable contract, the variable of trade interest backlogging their timeline to make a decision, and to top it all off, the multi-day saga of whether or not he would actually ink a deal while he was in Cincinnati.

After two days of negotiations with the Bengals, reports surfaced that Collins was leaving the team’s facilities and had another meeting lined up with the Miami Dolphins. Just hours later, a picture of him with a fan inside Cincinnati’s Kenwood Towne Center goes viral, making the situation even murkier. Fans start mobilizing to have their own personal moments with the veteran right tackle, and urge him to sign whatever deal was in front of him and his agent.

The deal itself was another aspect of intrigue. Collins was scheduled to make $30 million over the next three years with the Dallas Cowboys. He wound up settling for 70% of that with less than a quarter of it guaranteed after getting cut.

$21 million in total value for a top-tier offensive lineman in his 20s capped off a free agency period that had Bengals fans exhaling in relief. The club managed to add one of the best blockers available without bending their financial principles; a true win-win in every sense of the phrase. Collins represented the crown jewel of Joe Burrow’s rebuilt o-line, the unit that will elevate the offense into the consistent scoring machine it was meant to be.

Not so fast.

The Bengals’ offense is in disarray for a plethora of reasons, and for what feels like the 70th year in a row, the line is again in the center of it all. Through two games, they have the 10th-worst pass-blocking grade as a unit per Pro Football Focus, which aligns with their seventh-worst pass blocking efficiency rating. They’ve been charged with 30 pressures and seven sacks, both rank 30th or worse in the league.

Collins has been one of the main culprits for the early struggles. He ranks fourth-worst in pass-block grade out of all starting tackles, and the eye-test says no different. His footwork shows a player having little confidence in handling speed around the edge. In turn, his hand usage is struggling as his timing is in flux, leading to pass sets that put him, and his quarterback, at risk.

Cowboys’ pass-rushing extraordinaire Micah Parsons saw all of this first-hand and took advantage.

This is not the Collins Cincinnati signed up for in March, and they’re hoping it’s not the Collins they’ll observe as the season progresses.

Back in July, the Bengals placed Collins on the Active/Non-Football Injury list for a back issue he started noticing earlier in the offseason. Various injuries have plagued Collins in recent years. It’s why so much of his new contract is comprised of per-game roster bonuses. The Bengals expect him to be better, but they also knew the risks of bringing him on.

Collins’ injury forced him to miss the first few weeks of training camp, and he wasn’t a full participant until late August. The time he missed recovering can’t be dismissed as nothing. Weeks 1 and 2 of the season commonly feature rusty performances from players who had fully healthy offseason programs. To see someone in Collins’ position have issues isn’t shocking, but that doesn’t make it any less detrimental.

The season is in Week 3 now. T.J. Watt and Parsons are in the past. A month’s worth of full practices are under his belt. If there’s any rust left on Collins, he needs to do whatever it takes to shake it off.