CINCINNATI — As the NFL Draft approaches Thursday, and predictions continue to be made trying to guess what positions the Cincinnati Bengals will hone in on during the early rounds, the right tackle spot remains a big question.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor last week said Jackson Carman has a chance to prove he’s a starter in that competition, Jonah Williams is automatically thrown into that mix with Orlando Brown Jr. taking his left tackle spot, and on Monday, Taylor added free agent signee Cody Ford, whose been listed as a guard, into the conversation.
Then, of course, there’s the incumbent La’el Collins working back from a Dec. 24 ACL and MCL tear. Collins’ future could be up in the air because of his injury history and the potential for cap savings if he’s cut, and Williams requested a trade, but as the roster stands now, it would appear the Bengals have plenty of options at right tackle.
Collins, in his first interview since the injury, said he’s ahead of schedule in his rehab and ready to prove himself in that role again, but he believes he still has the confidence of the coaching staff.
“They know me,” Collins said. “They know what I can do. There’s no doubt about it. That’s why they brought me here. When you just look at our group, they’re talented. But that’s just the type of culture that Frank (Pollack) brings in and that’s why I chose to come here. For one, we’re as one. We’re not five individual guys. We go out there and play as one. I wouldn’t want to be in any other type of culture. Plus, if you look at Jackson (Carman), you look at D’Ante Smith, you look at all these guys that we have, they all have the ability, they all have the want-to. They’re going to continue to grow around great vets, around great guys that come to work and do the things they’re supposed to do. Those guys are fine.”
Collins said he had his surgery in Los Angeles around the time the Bengals’ playoff run began, and he remained in L.A. for the first two months of rehab with Dr. Neal ElAttrache. He came to Cincinnati briefly, then went back to his home in Dallas to continue working there.
Returning to Cincinnati for voluntary workouts was important, he said, in order to be around his teammates and building that camaraderie because that is where “championship runs … start.”
Collins wasn’t ready to put a timetable on his return but said he feels stronger each day and at the end of his workout last week, he was able to take some pass sets, which was a positive sign for him and a milestone in his progress. He hasn’t started running yet but the little things are starting to add up, and he feels like he could be running at this point.
“I can’t give you a timetable, I’m not the guy that makes the ultimate decision, but at the end of the day, I feel like if I had to play today, I could put a brace on it and I could go to work,” said Collins, who went to the same surgeon that fixed Joe Burrow’s knee, which also gives him confidence. “I know my knee is locked in and stable. Dr. ElAttrache is the best in the business. I feel great.”
Collins said outside of the knee, he feels better physically than he has in a long time. He opened the 2022 season dealing with a back injury that he played through but still felt impacted by. That’s all healed now, and his body feels better than it has in a long time.
Combining that with how his rehab is going, Collins said he believes he will be going into this season “a whole lot healthier” than he was. He had just started feeling good with his back when the knee injury occurred and can’t help but wonder what more he could have done for the Bengals if he had been healthy. That’s what he’s out to prove in 2023.
“That was tough, just knowing I wasn’t able to be there for those guys in the playoffs and everything like that,” Collins said. “To me, personally, I feel like with myself in there and with us healthy as a group, I think we go all the way and I think we accomplish what we want to accomplish. But hey, we got another shot at it. We’re fortunate enough to be together for another year here. I’m excited for what we have to offer, I’m excited to see what Frank brings out of the group, which for me, every group I’ve been around with Frank has been nothing but the best. So I’m excited about that.”
Collins called this offensive line group the deepest he’s been around, especially with the addition of Brown, which he said was a “big surprise” to see that caliber type of player signed. He can’t wait to see the offense reach another level with this line, and he still expects to be a part of it, even while Taylor calls it a competition.
“This is the NFL,” Collins said. “You got something to prove each and every day. I got something to prove today when I go out here and work out. That’s who you are. That’s what you’re about. You gotta know what you’re made of. You gotta know how to make that shine each and every way in everything that you do.”
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