Dallas Cowboys: Can these absent players replace lost free agents?

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 16: Randy Gregory #94 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 16, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts won 23-0. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 16: Randy Gregory #94 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 16, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts won 23-0. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Randy Gregory and David Irving are absent from the Dallas Cowboys, due to substance abuse. If reinstated, can the duo become defensive saviors?

The beginning of free agency has been giving much of Dallas Cowboys Nation whiplash, especially since it looked for a moment like America’s Team might have lost star receiver Amari Cooper to the hated Washington Redskins. Fortunately, this disaster was averted and all it took was a $100 million contract to lock down the Pro Bowl pass catcher for another five years.

However, between this contract and franchise tagging quarterback Dak Prescott for another $31 million, Dallas felt they couldn’t afford to sign 11.5 sack defensive end Robert Quinn or four-year starting defensive tackle Maliek Collins, both of whom have departed in free agency. In the case of Collins, most Cowboys observers have expected his departure for weeks, as multiple team sources have said the team would prefer bigger defensive tackles this year.

But the defection of Robert Quinn to the Chicago Bears hurts a lot more. It’s hard to replace 11 and a half sacks. But you have to feel good for the guy. Chicago signed Quinn to a $70 million contract over five years, according to Sam Cooper at Yahoo Sports.

Good for you, Robert Quinn! Just for the record, if someone wants to pay me $70 million to move to Chicago, consider me up to the challenge, even with the cold. Just sayin’.

The question, however, is how to replace the production of half the starters and 15.5 sacks (Collins had four) from last year’s defensive line. It sounds like a daunting task, especially given Dallas’s recent shortage of funds.

However, the timing might be fortuitous for the Cowboys. Suspended defensive linemen Randy Gregory and David Irving have both recently reapplied for reinstatement in light of the NFL’s decision to stop suspending players for marijuana violations.

The recently passed collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA also lowers the drug testing window from four months to two weeks, and raises the threshold for a positive test from 35 nanograms of THC (the intoxicating agent in marijuana) to 150 ngs, as reported by Austin Anderson at the Sporting News. All of this basically reduces the penalty for smoking the wacky tobacky to something like a traffic ticket.

And that makes professional football look a lot more friendly to players like Gregory and Irving, both of whom admit to using marijuana as an herbal medicine, and were both suspended for this (and other offenses in the case of Irving).

These changes don’t exactly guarantee the reinstatement of either player, but it certainly makes it a lot more likely. This is especially true of Gregory, who has been a relatively good citizen and team member, other than his marijuana use. Irving, on the other hand, has made some harsh statements about the NFL, saying, “I don’t miss the NFL. Because it’s all politics,” according to Mike Fisher at Sports Illustrated.

Irving also reportedly had a contentious relationship with former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. According to Irving, Garrett told him he should stop playing and, “smoke all the weed I wanted because the team didn’t need me anymore.”

Since the change in policy, the Cowboys have indicated an openness to explore the situation with Irving. Garrett’s absence undoubtedly helps as well.

The team also has two years left on Gregory’s contract, due to all the suspensions. Plus, owner Jerry Jones has always been a big Randy Gregory supporter, so the pass rusher’s return to the team could be in the offing.

With Collins and Quinn gone, the Cowboys could certainly use the physical skills of these two talented defensive linemen, especially given their low salaries. Gregory is still on his rookie contract, and Irving would likely be a bargain too, due to his recent issues with the league.

In terms of production, Gregory made six sacks in 2018, his one full season in the NFL, while only starting about half the games, according to Pro Football Reference. The oft-sidelined Gregory also has the physical attributes of the best pass rushers: bendy Gumby-like frame, long arms, and an explosive first step. The man seems designed to rush the passer.

Irving, despite his inflammatory statements, might be even more talented. Between 2016-2017, the big interior lineman made 11 sacks in only 10 starts, amidst injuries and suspensions, according to Fisher. And again, that’s on the interior of the line, where it’s usually harder to reach the quarterback.

Throughout all these suspensions, Cowboys watchers have wondered just how productive the duo might be without all the turmoil. We might be on the verge of finding out.

Despite the promise of both players, I’m sure the Cowboys won’t be sitting on their hands through the rest of free agency and the draft. No one outside the league office can say for sure if one or both of them will be reinstated or not.

Besides, as of now, Dallas only has six defensive linemen under contract: defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, and Joe Jackson, defensive tackles Trysten Hill and recently-signed Gerald McCoy, and multi-use lineman Tyrone Crawford.

They’re expected to re-sign one-technique restricted free agent Antwaun Woods, but haven’t done so yet. Of the players under contract right now, only Lawrence and Armstrong played consistently for the Cowboys last year.

Hill and Jackson hardly saw the field, and even Armstrong was a reserve.  Meanwhile, Crawford was out for nearly the whole season with a hip injury. He had surgery last year, but no one knows how well he’ll play.

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So regardless of what happens with Irving and Gregory, the Cowboys will have to sign and/or draft more defensive linemen. But after everything is said and done, the two suspended players, if reinstated and restored to America’s Team, might just give Dallas the lift it needs next year.  If so, the timing couldn’t be better.