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IRVING, Texas (AP) — Former LSU offensive lineman La'el Collins paused to keep control of his emotions at a news conference to announce his signing with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent.
Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones had an even harder time holding back tears while sitting next to a projected first-round pick who didn't get selected because his name surfaced in the investigation of the shooting death of a pregnant woman he knew in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
"I've not had this experience in the NFL," Jones said Thursday. "I've never seen anybody have this experience that La'el's had."
Police acknowledged days before the draft that they wanted to talk to Collins, a 2014 all-Southeastern Conference lineman, because he knew the victim, 29-year-old Brittney Mills. She was shot and killed 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.
Going undrafted in the first round has cost Collins millions of dollars. Financial details weren't disclosed, but undrafted free agents are eligible for a three-year deal that pays $435,000 in 2015, $525,000 in 2016, and $615,000 in 2017.
Also, bonuses are limited to about $87,000 for all undrafted free agents combined.
"It's not even about the money," Collins said as he sat between his mother, Loyetta, and Jones with coach Jason Garrett nearby. "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 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.
Instead, he was escorted off the field during a pre-draft public appearance because of the developments back home and didn't hear his name called for three days.
"I never once was bitter," Collins said. "I could have easily been mad at the world, taken it out on anybody. I never dropped my head. I knew what I stand for. I know the person that I am."
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."
"It's an ongoing investigation," Collins said Thursday. "I've collaborated fully with the police. That's all I really need to say about it."
Collins talked with Jones by phone early in the week, then met with the owner, Garrett, Tony Romo and other players at Jones' home on Wednesday night. He said he "knew from that moment" he would sign with the Cowboys, who essentially ended up with three first-round picks.
Dallas got Randy Gregory in the second round last week when the former Nebraska defensive end slid because he tested positive for marijuana and didn't follow through on all his planned meetings with teams. The Cowboys took Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones in the first round.
Gregory and Collins share an agent in Deryk Gilmore and were workout partners before the draft.
"To actually be teammates with him, it's really crazy," Collins said. "I never even imagined it, or thought about it. It never even crossed my mind."
Jones was questioned at length after the draft about the support system for Gregory. The owner said circumstances were different with Collins.
"He left out one thing when he said it was ongoing and that he had full cooperation with them," Jones said. "He left out one thing — he just didn't do anything."
Collins doesn't have that clearance from police, but will go to work for the Cowboys next week. He isn't eligible to participate in the rookie minicamp this weekend because of the timing of his signing.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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