La’el Collins held up the No. 71 Cowboys’ jersey, sharing it with his mother, Loyetta, as well as team owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett. The LSU offensive lineman wore a wide smile during the photo op at Valley Ranch.
None of this was supposed to happen.
“I just believe that God has a plan for everything,” Collins said. “I believe that his plan for me was different. It was just different. Never before has this ever happened, and I trusted him, put my faith in him and knew he would guide me to the place where he wanted me to be.
“And I’m here. I’m a part of something great. I’m a part of something special, and I wanted to be. And I think that that’s important and I look forward to everything that we’re going to accomplish in the future.”
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Jones couldn’t stop grinning either after signing Collins to a three-year, $1.65 million deal. The fully guaranteed contract includes a $21,000 signing bonus.
The Cowboys ended up with three players they ranked in the top 20 on their draft board, Jones said. Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones became the No. 27 overall choice, and Nebraska pass rusher Randy Gregory fell to them at No. 60 after testing positive for marijuana at the Scouting Combine.
“One in a million,” Jones said of the prospect of landing all three.
A team drafting in the top 10 was prepared to select Collins, according to a source, until word broke that Baton Rouge, La., police wanted to question Collins on the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend.
Collins left Chicago the day before the NFL Draft started. An NFL employee escorted him off the makeshift field at Grant Park following a Play60 event April 29, and he flew back to Louisiana to meet with police. Even though investigators said Collins was not a suspect in Brittney Mills’ death on April 24, the cloudiness of the situation scared all 32 teams enough that he went undrafted.
“I knew it was no question that I’m going to play football. That’s no question,” said Collins, who, per NFL rules, is not allowed to take part in the team’s rookie minicamp that runs Friday through Sunday. “I knew that I was going to be a part of something special. The moment I knew I had an opportunity to choose, and all the teams I had to choose from, I was like ‘Wow.’ At the end of the day I look at it like, a lot of people passed up on me — whatever the case may be. I understand. I get that. But now everybody has to face me. Everybody has to face this team, and they will feel it.”
Collins dined with Bills coach Rex Ryan on Monday night, but his decision came down to two teams — Dallas and Miami. The Dolphins attempted to recruit him by sending several players, including some of his former LSU teammates, to Baton Rouge for dinner Tuesday.
But Collins never made it to Miami for a visit, canceling the trip after having dinner at Jones’ Highland Park home on Wednesday night with Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith.
“I’m extremely excited. I can’t say that enough,” Collins said. “I’m extremely excited. I chose to wear this star, because I feel like I’m a star. My family’s a star. And we will represent it very well.”
Collins, 21, joins an offensive line that includes three first-round draft picks, now Pro Bowlers. He played 13 games at left guard at LSU and 26 at left tackle, and Garrett said the Cowboys will work Collins at both guard and tackle.
“We do have a great opportunity with our offensive line,” Jones said. “I really believe that it can be maybe the best offensive line that there’s been in the NFL. A lot of people might say that La’el might have gone where he was needed in the offensive line more. Instead to show you what he is, he wants to be where he can contribute to being a part of a great line.”
Collins’ fall out of the draft cost him millions. The 10th overall pick last year, Lions tight end Eric Ebron, signed a four-year, $12.25 million deal, including a $7.23 million signing bonus.
Because Collins arrived as an undrafted free agent, however, the Cowboys can renegotiate the deal after two years.
“I’ve thought about it, but it’s not even about the money,” Collins said. “I never played the game for the money; I play the game because I love the game; I play the game because I’m passionate about it. Just to be here — I’m still getting paid. And at the end of the day, it was way more than I was getting in college.
“It’s a plus. It’s a great situation. What’s for me is going to be for me. The money, all that, that’s cool. If I handle my business and this team handles the business that we know we’re going to handle, that’ll come.”