The 2020 season for the Dallas Cowboys was a forgetful one. However, there were a few positives to take from it, and one was the return of Randy Gregory. After missing the entire 2019 season due to an indefinite suspension, the former second-round pick reminded everyone of the talent that he possesses.
Gregory had one obstacle in his way last season though, and that was Aldon Smith who was a prized offseason addition. Smith came out guns blazing with four sacks in the first three games, but only managed one sack for the rest of the year. Despite his production taking a dip, Smith was still given a lot more opportunities than Gregory, although the former Nebraska Cornhusker outperformed him. This led to a bit of resentment from Gregory towards the coaching staff, as he detailed recently in a piece via The Athletic.
“I felt there was a little bit of favoritism going on … refusing to let me outshine their favorite,” Gregory said. “They knew I could do it, so they did what they could to keep me at bay. I had my times when I was angry. I used to talk to Peter (agent) about it, and the best thing I could do was just go out there on the field with the plays they give me and make those plays worth it. I did that, but I truly felt I got robbed of a year last year.”
The disparity in snaps between Smith and Gregory was mindblowing. The former played 73% (809) of the team's defensive snaps, while the latter logged just 25% (271) of the snaps. More specifically, Smith logged 211 more snaps than Gregory in the 10 games they both played in.
What makes it, even more, head-scratching is that Gregory produced 21 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 12 quarterback hits over that span. Smith on the other hand registered just 19 tackles, a sack, two fumble recoveries, and six quarterback hits, which included three games where he didn't log a tackle.
New Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn was brought in immediately after the 2020 season to turn around a defense that yielded a franchise-record 473 points and finished 31st against the run. The fact that Gregory didn't play more despite outperforming Smith left Quinn puzzled like it did many others.
“I was surprised he didn’t play more,” Quinn said. “I brought it up to Mike. He was at the top of the list for me as far as defining a role. His playing time is going to increase, for sure. I think he’s going to really take off.”
When given the opportunities, Gregory has produced. In 2018, when he played in 14 games and logged his only career start, Gregory registered 25 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and 15 quarterback hits. The impressive part is that he did so playing just 45% (457) of the team's defensive snaps.
The 2021 season will be different for Gregory. Barring something unforeseen, he's set to start opposite DeMarcus Lawrence at right defensive end. With his life off the field under control and an abundance of opportunities on the horizon, Gregory has the chance to show why he was so sought after before the 2015 NFL Draft.
There's plenty of storylines to watch for the Cowboys this season from the return of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott looking to bounce back from his worst season in the NFL, and Trevon Diggs trying to improve on his rookie campaign where he showed flashes of greatness. However, with his history of suspensions now behind him, and a regular starting role in the palm of his hand, seeing Gregory unleashed will be a focal point of America's Team in 2021.