The Dallas Cowboys signed La’el Collins on Thursday, bringing in the former LSU offensive tackle who had been a projected first-round pick in last week’s NFL draft until his name came up in a police investigation.
Collins, a 2014 All-Southeastern Conference lineman, has never been named a suspect or person of interest in the shooting death of 29-year-old Brittney Mills. Police acknowledged days before the draft that they wanted to talk to Collins because he knew the victim, who was eight months pregnant when she was gunned down at her home in late April.
After he went undrafted, Collins met with police, who say he has answered all of their questions. Collins also submitted to a paternity test that proved he is not the father of Mills’ infant son, who was born alive after the shooting but died days later.
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Going undrafted in the first round has cost Collins millions of dollars. FOX Sports 1 NFL insider Mike Garafolo reports that the deal is for three years, with a fully guaranteed salary that’s near $1.7 million.
"It’s not even about the money," Collins said as he sat between his mother, Loyetta, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at a news conference announcing the deal. "I never played the game for the money. I played the game because I love the game.
"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," he said as laughter broke out among reporters.
The flip side to losing out on first-round millions was Collins being a free agent in demand, with 26 teams inquiring about his services. He told the media it took one phone call from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to convince the rookie where he wanted to sign.
"You know, I got a call from Mr. Jones a couple nights ago, late, about 11 o’clock," Collins said. "We had a long conversation, man, and that was the first time I really felt like somebody’d really seen me for who I am."
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Collins is a Baton Rouge native who was rated among Louisiana’s top high school prospects in 2010, when he committed to play near home.
He was eligible for the 2014 draft, but elected to play for LSU as a senior to further refine his game. Initially, it appeared to pay off when he was projected as first-round choice this year.
"We wouldn’t normally have this type of announcement for an undrafted free agent," Jones said. "But this is not your typical undrafted free agent. La’el had an unfortunate circumstance not of his doing that kept him from being drafted in the first round and prevented him from having this moment. And we wanted him to have this moment here today."
Baton Rouge police Lt. Jonny Dunnam has said police understood the timing of the investigation was unfortunate for Collins. He also stressed that Collins currently is "no more a person of interest than a neighbor would be."
When the Cowboys announced Collins’ signing, they said he could play either guard or tackle. Collins likely would prefer to play tackle, giving him more leverage when he is able to negotiate a new contract.
In the meantime, if Collins plays to his potential, the Cowboys likely will get exceptional value for his services the next few seasons, regardless of where he plays.
"I had the opportunity to choose from 32 teams where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy," Collins said.
"This is going to be the best offensive line in NFL history. Mark my words."