The Dallas Cowboys struggled in several areas in 2020. That was due in part to injuries and inconsistent play. But while the defense finished tied for 21st in the NFL with a total of 31 sacks, it wasn’t due to a lack of pass rushers.
On paper, the trio of defensive ends in DeMarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith, and Randy Gregory represented one of the best pass-rushing units in the league. In actuality, they combined for a total of 15.0 sacks altogether, with Lawrence leading the team with 6.5 sacks. The NFL’s top pass rusher, T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers, racked up 15.0 sacks himself.
But one must also consider the fact that Gregory didn’t start playing until Week Seven due to his latest suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Following his reinstatement, he ended up playing 251 defensive snaps, which was 24% of the time the defense was on the field in 2020.
Gregory ended the season with 21 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and three forced fumbles in 10 games coming off the bench. Here’s what Ben Linsey of the football analytics site, Pro Football Focus, wrote about Gregory as his selection for the Cowboys’ most improved player in 2020.
"” … Gregory did show marked signs of improvement as both a run defender and a pass rusher. His 79.4 run-defense grade and 81.9 pass-rushing grade were both comfortably career-highs, as was his 17.1% pass-rush win rate. The next step for Gregory in 2021 is to deliver a similar performance over the course of a full season.”"
A second-round selection by the Cowboys back in 2015, Gregory had played a total of just 28 games before last season. And that’s due to his various drug-related suspensions. But because of his immense talent, the Dallas front office never gave up on him. And that faith was rewarded this past season. And there’s hope that it continues.
After all, Gregory is only 28-years old. And he should be entering his athletic prime without the years of wear and tear most premier pass rushers have at the same age.
Plus, the Cowboys may need Gregory to be at his best in 2021. That’s due to Aldon Smith being scheduled to hit free agency next month as an unrestricted free agent. It’s unclear if Dallas intends to sign the former All-Pro who was one of the biggest early surprises last season.
After having not played since 2015, the 31-year old Smith racked up 4.0 sacks in his first three games for the Cowboys. Unfortunately, he would record only a single sack over the next 13 games, putting his re-signing in Dallas a larger question mark.
If the Dallas Cowboys decide to move on from Aldon Smith this offseason, the spotlight shifts solely to Randy Gregory to start opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence in 2021. And then we’ll all find out just how improved the former second-rounder really is.