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Cowboys’ Randy Gregory remains on track to start in 2021: ‘He can be a premier player’ for Dallas

It’s the culmination of a journey wrought with turmoil, but is now presumably (and finally) approaching its zenith. There was never a question regarding the potential of Randy Gregory at the NFL level when the Dallas Cowboys selected him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but his otherwise promising career has been mostly stalled by the league’s stance on marijuana and how it’s used to treat mental illness. As a longtime sufferer of clinical anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, Gregory uses it to self-medicate and that’s often put him in the crosshairs of the substance abuse policy — leading to several suspensions that kept him from becoming the prolific pass rusher he has the ability to be.

But in the evolved NFL landscape that features a new collective bargaining agreement with an overhauled approach to both marijuana testing and mental health policy, Gregory was reinstated from indefinite suspension one year ago and rejoined his teammates on the field in Week 7 of the 2020 season, after additionally being forced to sit six weeks. 

Despite being forced to miss six games and being relegated to rotational duty (zero starts) by now-ousted defensive coordinator Mike Nolan — which was one reason Nolan was fired, as CBS Sports reported — the 28-year-old delivered 3.5 sacks and is now expected to be named starting defensive end opposite All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence in 2021. The addition of Dan Quinn as coordinator has only strengthened that expectation, sources say, and head coach Mike McCarthy all but confirmed as much when speaking on Gregory’s progress just ahead of mandatory minicamp. 

“Just having a chance to watch Randy Gregory work … he looks very comfortable out there,” said McCarthy. “When I looked at Randy’s personal evaluation [from 2020], I gave him two arrows way up. Clearly, his path last year, he just continued to rise with every opportunity he had.”

Of course, McCarthy isn’t naive to the looming question as to why Gregory was shoehorned behind Aldon Smith — even after Smith began to cool noticeably as the season went along, while Gregory did the opposite.

“Why the hell didn’t he play more? I get it,” admitted McCarthy.” I didn’t have a chance to work with him [last offseason]. … But now I think he can be a primary, premier player for us.” 

As the Cowboys parted ways with Nolan, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and later Smith, the sea began to part for Gregory. He remains on solid footing mentally and has continued to adhere to the terms of his conditional reinstatement, two things that keep him on track to make good on his prediction to CBS Sports — in an exclusive Q&A approximately 14 months ago.

“I will be back this year,” he said with determination. “Difference is, I’ll be back for good this time.”

So far, so good.

Even Gregory’s reinstatement process wasn’t easy, however, considering his frustrations boiled over to the point of him publicly blasting the NFLPA for what he felt was an unwarranted delay in the processing of his paperwork with the league’s front office. It’s apropos to all of the hurdles he’s been tasked with jumping through to get to this point in his career, one in which he’s positioned to be a cornerstone player for the Cowboys; and also sets him on a path for what could be a lucrative new contract in the next several months — something sources told CBS Sports in December were in play if things continued to chug forward in 2021 as they did following Gregory’s return in 2020.

And it was also in December that Gregory made it clear all of the rust from his suspension that cost him the entirety of the 2019 season was a thing of the past. Not only was/is he feeling great mentally, but physically he’s regained his NFL wind and legs. 

“As far as day to day — feeling strong, feeling like I can go out there and really play at my highest level,” he said. “I’ve really stayed consistent with that throughout the year. Very proud of myself for that. I think in years past, I couldn’t say the same. But [in 2020], I’ve done a pretty good job.”

Jerry Jones, a staunch defender of and believer in Gregory, is set to be rewarded for his commitment to use Cowboys resources to help provide support when it was most needed. That’s something Gregory himself will never forget: how Jones and the Cowboys believed in him when few others outside of his close family did. 

“I would say [I’m most proud of] just the fact that I never gave up,” he said toward the end of last season. “I’ve had times where I’ve doubted myself. I’ve had times where I wondered what life would be like without football, but the biggest thing for me, the biggest thing I’m most proud of is that I never gave up. At the end of the day, I believe that this is the place I need to be, around the people that are here.”

The chance to finally take his career to its highest point is right there for the taking, and he plans to grab it with both hands.

“Football is the most natural thing for me, so I’m going to keep trying to be here,” he added. “I’m going to keep coming back. I’m going to keep going out there and playing as hard as I can until I’m not wanted in this league any more or they push me out of this league. I don’t know if that’s going to be today. I don’t know if that’s going to be a year from now — two years, five years, it doesn’t really matter to me. 

“Just the fact that I continue to fight, continue to want to come back and play is really important to me.”

It remains equally important to the Cowboys as an organization, a support system and a defensive unit that needs him.