The anticipated return of Dak Prescott is poised to be the main storyline in Dallas through training camp and as the 2021 season approaches, but the Cowboys quarterback is stressing the importance of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins as they too enter comebacks.
The trio missed a combined 36 games during a marred 6-10 season for the Cowboys in 2020. While their returns may not receive the same buzz or fanfare compared to the star QB they're collectively protecting, Prescott believes their presence will be just as important to the team's success this season, if not more.
"They're the most important, if you ask me," Prescott said, via Todd Archer of ESPN. "From the time that I got drafted until now, this offense is built off of those guys. They're the three most veteran guys on this team, and that's for a reason. Those guys are walk-in Pro Bowl guys when they're healthy, future Hall of Famers. Just to have those three guys lead the five guys up front, everything starts with them. The run game, that allows the pass game to open up. When you have those guys back healthy, energized, it's special."
Smith, the Cowboys' All-Pro left tackle, played just two games before undergoing season-ending neck surgery last year. Martin, an All-Pro guard, missed a career-high six games in 2020 dealing with a concussion and a calf injury during a year where he was asked to juggle a mid-season position switch to right tackle. Collins, the team's starting RT for three consecutive years, missed all of last season due to offseason hip surgery.
Smith and Collins expressed their regret of not being on the field when Prescott suffered his horrific ankle injury in Week 5, but not without the harrowing moment adding to their drive for a healthy return.
"You see somebody rough up your quarterback, and me not being able to step in and calm that out, that was tough," Collins said. "Any time your team takes the field, and as a true competitor and you're not out there, it's always tough. But it really gave me something to look forward to when I came back. It just gave me a lot of motivation and everything that I need to just keep moving forward."
Added Smith: "Honestly, it just pushed us to be better and just know what we have to get done."
Smith, Collins and Martin were held out of competitive drills during the team's offseason program, but were present, working with the strength and conditioning staff and participating in non-contact drills. All three are expected to be a full-go for July's training camp. Smith and Collins, in particular, are feeling good after undergoing surgeries that helped mend injuries that have persisted over the years.
"I'm just starting to feel like myself again," Collins said. "It feels good. I'm working overtime just with treatment and physical therapy to make sure this thing is right, and all the hard work is definitely paying off."
Said Smith: "It's no longer a lingering injury or something I have to worry about."
Outside of Prescott, perhaps there's no one else more excited to see an offensive line nearing a clean bill of health than Mike McCarthy, who endured an unlucky first season as Cowboys head coach. After a year where the Cowboys were forced to assemble 13 different O-line combinations, McCarthy looks forward to what's shaping up to be a fresh start in 2021.
"I'm loving the positive vibes. They look great out there," McCarthy said. "Tyron, going off last year's experience, I have never seen him smile as much. A big part of it is he is healthy. He is pain-free. He looks great. LC looks great and the big man can run.
"We definitely are a different line when those two guys line up. There is no question about that. It will be great to have them out there on an individual basis [after] what they have gone through last year. It definitely makes our line, our whole process up front, move a lot smoother."