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La’el Collins wants his starting job back, but Cowboys must find his fit in current lineup

If Terence Steele keeps the job, Mike McCarthy must solve one of his biggest worries: The interior of the offensive line.

FRISCO — In the middle of questions about Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s progress from a calf injury, coach Mike McCarthy revealed Wednesday that right tackle La’el Collins isn’t guaranteed a return to the starting lineup.

Collins is back practicing with the team after serving a five-game suspension for violations to the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

With the litigation regarding the suspension over with, Collins is determined to get his starting job back. The issue is the man who replaced him, Terence Steele, has played well enough to keep the job.

“I mean you clearly have to recognize how well Terence played,” McCarthy said. “We all recognize that. Continuity of the offensive line is something that you’re always striving to sustain over the course of the year. The intricacies of what goes on up front, the reps they’ve been playing together is crucial, so we want to continue to grow that. But also, I think this gives us the most competitive, the most depth that I’ve had in my time here in the offensive line room.”

If Steele keeps the job, McCarthy must solve one of his biggest worries: the interior of the offensive line.

It’s not about right guard Zack Martin, who is playing at an All-Pro and Pro Bowl level. Center Tyler Biadasz and left guard Connor Williams are concerns.

And Collins isn’t replacing Biadasz.

During the early portions of Wednesday’s practice, Collins was getting snaps at both guard spots in addition to right tackle.

Collins last played guard in 2016, where he started the first three games at left guard before a toe injury forced him out that year. The next season, Collins became a full-time right tackle and turned into one of the better players at his position in the league.

Now the Cowboys seek improvements along the line, and if Collins is an upgrade over Williams, a move is possible.

“That’s all part of it,” McCarthy said. “I think position flexibility is always important, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m looking forward to seeing him back out there.”

This season the Cowboys have run 16 plays through the left guard, ninth fewest in the NFL.

But Dallas likes to run most of its plays up the middle, 67 total, second most in the league. Clearly using the three interior linemen with Martin as the lead makes things easier.

Of course the Cowboys have a strong run game overall, with a 5.1 yards per carry average (third best in the NFL) and a solid 164.3 yards per game average, second best in the league.

McCarthy believes an effective running game is needed for deep playoff runs, especially if you have outdoor games. Is the confidence level high in the running attack with a road game in say, Green Bay?

The head coach isn’t taking any chances by waiting to find out. It’s best to get your best five linemen now in case you have to play on the road in January.

Collins is competing against Steele and Williams.

“I just want him to get back out there and get back in a routine of everything,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s like anything, there’s a reason why we practice. There’s a reason why those O-lineman spend so much time together, just the way they go about their business. I just want to see him go back in rhythm.”

The Cowboys have two more days of practices before heading to Minneapolis for a Halloween night game against the Vikings. The starting lineup the last five games could remain in place with Collins becoming the swing tackle. Then again, maybe Collins takes over for Williams at left guard.

“I think the biggest thing is making sure he’s in shape, making sure he’s ready to go,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said of Collins. “But our line had been playing good, so I don’t think there’s any rush to throw him in there.”

Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

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Calvin Watkins. This is my 10th year covering the Dallas Cowboys. This is special for me because I've never reached the 10th year in anything, other than living. So I guess that's something to be proud of. @calvinwatkins
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