The New Orleans Saints have a lot of big decisions to make this offseason, with the most crucial probably being who they'll select with the 13th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft in early May. Many observers have the Saints picking a pass rusher in the first round, several of them having singled out former Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.
In my opinion, the Saints should pass on the rusher and instead, protect their franchise. That's quarterback Drew Brees. Yes, the 2014 "USS Black and Gold" got torpedoed into the abyss mostly because it had no defense, but it was also destroyed because its once lethal attack was too often stymied. That offensive ineptitude was usually a direct result of the constant pressure on Drew Brees, one borne from the less than stellar play of the Saints' offensive guards all year long.
The versatile left tackle from LSU Collins is unanimously projected as a first round pick, with selections ranging anywhere from 9th by the New York Giants (Pat Kirwan of CBS.com and Dan Kadar of SB Nation) to 25th by the Carolina Panthers (Walter Football.com). In other words, my interest in La'el Collins isn't simply based on the fact that he is a Lousiana kid who played for the team I root for.
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, who sees Collins going 10th to the Saint Louis Rams, had a very insightful analysis of the Bayou Bengal offensive lineman's strengths and weaknesses. Here's what specifically stuck with me:
Strengths: "He takes defenders for a ride once he's engaged on the move. Loves to mash and intimidate opponents. Mean player. Finisher, can come in and play guard or tackle."
Weaknesses: "Change of direction is slow for a tackle. (He) fails to consistently bring hips and feet with him in the running game causing him to fall forward and lose balance. Hands will start too slow in pass pro at times. (He) will have to move to right tackle or inside.
When reading the above description, Collins' strengths were evident to me, having watched every LSU game this season. Some of his weaknesses as well, although all of them seem to be easily correctable with further coaching at the pro level. This is obviously evidenced by Zierlein still having Collins go 10th in this year's draft.
Moreover, if indeed Collins is better suited to become either a guard or a right tackle at the pro level, this is exactly what the doctor ordered for the Saints. Right tackle Zach Strief is entering the twilight of his NFL career, while the Saints have a young, up-and-coming stud at left tackle in Terron Armstead. Collins step up at left guard if the Saints release Ben Grubbs until Strief moves on or retires, at which point Collins would become New Orleans' starting right tackle.
From all indications, Collins made himself a lot of money at the ongoing NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Where he might have made an even bigger impact on NFL teams (they already knew how good he is) is in the interview room: Collins is a soft-spoken, smart young man, yet an undisputed locker room leader who had a really positive influence on the LSU football program.
They say pictures speak louder than words; I say GIFs are even better than pictures, so why don't we take a look at some of La'el Collins' prowess while at LSU? I chose the LSU-Florida game in 2014, because it featured Collins going against one of the best defenses in the country in the Will Muschamp-coached Gators. It also highlighted Collins going head-to-head with Dante Fowler Jr., a player many consider to be a top-tier pass rusher in this 2015 NFL draft. Although, it was only one game, it is interesting to watch a few clips showing how Collins fared in that game, one that LSU eventually won in The Swamp, 27-24.
GIF 1: Collins (70) is at left tackle, lower mid screen.
Strength: Ferociously moves linebacker Neiron Ball (11) aside and opens a gaping hole for running back Leonard Fournette.
Weakness: As Zierlein pointed out, Collins lunges and quickly loses his balance and his block.
GIF 2: Collins (70) is at left tackle, upper middle of your screen.
Strength: Great lateral movement by Collins in pass pro to keep the blindside defensive end at bay.
Weakness: I don't see any on this play.Do you?
GIF 3: Collins (70) is at left tackle with tight end Dillon Gordon (85) on his outside shoulder.
Strength: Collins is one on one with Dante Fowler Jr. (6) and shows the "finisher" moniker he has earned at LSU.
Weakness: Zierlein pointed out that Collins plays a bit high out of his stance at times. Against more physical NFL pass rushers, he'll often lose leverage playing that way.
GIF 4: Collins (70) is at left tackle, upper mid screen.
Strength: Collins takes the defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard (90) for a ride, and seals his block by pinning Bullard on the inside.
Weakness: What's that?
GIF 5: Collins (70) is at left tackle, middle of the screen.
Strength: Here's a great example of Collins using his hands beautifully to move Ball (11) out of the way.
Weakness: He doesn't stay engaged long enough and almost has to hold to keep Ball from spinning away.
GIF 6: Collins (70) is at left tackle, bottom of the screen.
Strength: The "Mean player" tag shows up in this play. Collins, one on one with Dante Fowler Jr. again, just flattens Fowler Jr. then makes sure he doesn't get up.
Weakness: Maybe this would be a 15-yard penalty in the NFL the way Collins plunges on Fowler. But it was still awesome.
If La'el Collins is available at 13 when New Orleans picks on the first day on the NFL draft in May, the Saints will have greatly improved their team if they select him. Not only as a football team, but also in terms of off the field character. With New Orleans suffering from a cruel lack of accountability and leadership in 2014, La'el Collins could be one of those players who are part of the revival and the rejuvenation of the Saints as they look to get back to the Super Bowl since a 2009 season that seems farther and father away.