When the Bengals' biggest prize of the offseason walked through the Paul Brown Stadium front door late Sunday afternoon to sign his three-year contract, head coach Zac Taylor knew exactly what he saw as La'el Collins stretched out his hand for greetings all around.
"Charisma," Taylor said. "He's a guy that guys are going to love having in the locker room and in the huddle. He's got that tenacity. He fits right in with what we've got going on."
What the AFC champions have going on besides a new secret service detail for quarterback Joe Burrow is a seismic culture shift on what used to be the Bengals' much-maligned offensive line. In less than a week they've gone from a punch line to punchers.
The way Collins recalls it, the intense three-day negotiations that drove him to Kenwood Mall to buy something other than his signing suit were ending as he read Burrow's text.
"You got a deal?????"
"I told him, 'Yeah, your new bodyguard is in town," Collins said.
It was the headiest weekend in Bengaldom since, well, last month and that four-point lead at the two-minute warning in Super Bowl LVI.
"This fan base has been amazing," said Collins of his selfie soiree through Kenwood with a mask that still gave him away. "They embraced me since I got on my flight (from Dallas) here.
"It means so much to me to feel that love and appreciation for me as a player and respect for knowing what I bring to the table and I'm just looking forward to making sure they can get a return on the investment. I can't wait."
Since free agency negotiations began Monday, the Bengals have added a starting center with two Super Bowl rings (Ted Karras), a starting right guard with another Super Bowl ring and a pain threshold higher than Burrow's AFC passer rating title (Alex Cappa) and one of the more highly regarded right tackles in the game in Collins.
"We have three new guys that know how to set the tone," said Frank Pollack, the Bengals offensive line coach who mentored Collins doing the same job in Dallas. "Pros that know how to prepare and practice. That's what L.C. is. He prepares hard and practices hard."
Pollack is one of the many reasons Collins' agent, Peter Schaffer, kept his client in town for three days and didn't put him on a plane Saturday to visit another team. Collins missed his five-year-old daughter badly, but both Schaffer and Collins also wanted to get it done here.
"There are good fits and perfect fits," Collins said. "I felt like this was the perfect fit from the jump. Obviously my history with Coach Frank. The type of coach he is. His standards are high. He's the best offensive line coach I've been around since I've been in the NFL, hands down. And getting back to work with him. And also the players on this team you see and look at the guys around that helped bring this team to where it is. What other team would you want to be part of?"
One of those guys, Burrow, invited him over to his house Friday night in one of the great recruiting pitches in Bengals history. Burrow got as many offensive linemen over there as he could, including Karras and Cappa along with new tight end Hayden Hurst and their significant others. Collins loved the chemistry, and it helped they all seemed to have Pollack's wide zone run game in common somewhere down the line.
He recalled "partying," with Burrow in the Superdome locker room that night in 2020 as former and current Tigers celebrated LSU's national title spearheaded by Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase, another Bengal.
But as they watched LSU lose in March Madness, this was the longest Collins had spent with Burrow and No. 9 was as advertised.
"One of the coolest guys you'll ever meet. Down to earth and a guy I just want to protect without a doubt," Collins said. "Just visualizing that moment (in 2020) of winning that championship and knowing how he felt after that game and Chase and all those guys felt to being able to bring that here, I think we've got something special and we could get it done."
Pollack knows Collins is special. Who else would tell him he missed his famously grueling practices? From his days in Dallas, when Cowboys running back Ezekial Elliott won an NFL rushing title, Pollack can still see that play against Seattle, when Collins rode not one, but two Seahawks down the field. And of them was perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner.
"He's the real deal. His play demeanor, he's a tempo-setter, he's a glass-eater through and through," Pollack said. "He's physical. He finishes. He punches. He's heavy-handed in pass protection. He's relentless in the run game. He's an impressive guy. It's great to coach him again."
And, that's right, Collins can't wait for another Pollack practice.
"I missed it," Collins said. "I missed the grind. I missed the work. By the time we got to the game, the games were easy."
The Bengals offensive line, no longer much-maligned this Monday, is looking for some of those.