Randy Gregory’s NFL career thus far can best be described as tumultuous. His talent on the field is undeniable, but his ability to stay on the field has prevented him from living up to expectations. But that is all about to change in 2021.
Gregory was able to return to football in 2020 after sitting out the first six games of the season due to another suspension. As you may expect from a guy who hadn’t played organized football in a year and a half, it took him a little bit to get going.
But once he got up to speed, Gregory reminded everyone why he was once considered a top five draft prospect. Making his season debut in Week 7, Gregory only saw six snaps. But his usage gradually increased each week until he broke out on Thanksgiving against the Washington Football Team. In that game, he tallied two sacks and was a constant presence in the pocket. It led to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan playing him more going forward, at the expense of fellow comeback player Aldon Smith.
As a result, Gregory finished the year third on the team in both sacks and pressures despite playing a fraction of the snaps that everyone else did. And as Bob Sturm of The Athletic recently broke down, Gregory produced splash plays at an alarmingly high rate:
Below are the “Top 5” splash play leaders for Dallas and in the far column, note the total snaps played. If you want to see why Gregory is where the Cowboys have wisely put their chips rather than another season of Smith, there you go. Smith had a nice start, but fizzled as you would think someone might after five years away from pro football. He averaged a splash play every 28.3 snaps. But Gregory was able make a play of significance every 12.5 snaps in his far more limited action (since he did not play in a game until Week 7 and played only more than 35 snaps three times). Lawrence averaged a splash once every 20.3 snaps and is probably a really good target number when snaps increase.
As Sturm notes, that figure will almost certainly change as Gregory sees more action, but it does reveal that Gregory was playing at a very high level in the final stretch of the season. More than that, Gregory was starting to look like the prospect coming out of Nebraska back in 2015 that everyone initially had a top five grade on.
And now, Gregory is going to be in an even better position with Dan Quinn stepping in to run the defense. While nothing has been confirmed yet, things can change in training camp and preseason, it seems highly likely that Gregory will fill the all-important LEO position in Quinn’s scheme.
The LEO position isn’t anything extraordinary in concept; it’s basically just a designated pass rusher who lines up further out wide than the rest of the defensive line, usually in a 9-technique alignment. This allows the LEO more of a straight angle towards the quarterback and is designed to give them isolated matchups against an offensive tackle instead of having to work in a phone booth. In Quinn’s history as a coach, the LEO also varies between a hands-in-the-dirt and stand-up alignment.
All of that seems to play right into the kind of player Gregory is and, more importantly, can be. Like many other Cowboys defenders last year, Gregory was tasked with too many different things at once. Putting him in a position out wide and letting his supreme athleticism and skill take over is the best way to unlock the potential that Gregory has been sitting on for seven seasons now.
And with DeMarcus Lawrence playing on the opposite end of Gregory and drawing more of the offensive line’s attention, things will be set up very nicely for him. Between that and the promising finish to the 2020 season we saw out of Gregory, it should only be a matter of time until the talented edge rusher lives up to the legacy of the jersey he wears on Sundays.