Can Randy Gregory do in 2016 what DeMarcus Lawrence did in 2015?

IRVING, Texas -- A year ago at this time many considered Randy Gregory to be a top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. He was the prototypical pass rusher -- long, lean and fast. He had 17.5 sacks in two seasons at Nebraska.

A failed drug test at the NFL scouting combine and other concerns saw Gregory fall all the way to the Dallas Cowboys at No. 60 overall in the second round. At the time, it was something of a coup to land a first-round talent in the second round.

But Gregory’s rookie season did not go as planned.

He opened eyes in the preseason with three sacks, and some wondered if he would be the best defensive rookie in 2015 (hand raised). But he suffered a high ankle sprain in the season-opening win against the New York Giants and missed the next four games.

The momentum he had built in Oxnard, California, was lost when he returned Oct. 25 against the New York Giants. So too, it seemed, was the trust he had from the coaches. He never played more than 22 snaps in his first eight games back from the injury. In the final four games, he played at least 22 snaps in each game.

But he never did record a sack as a rookie.

The coaches credited him with 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and 16 quarterback pressures.

“I think anybody who relies on speed and anything to do with their legs is something that can impact them, but injuries are a part of the game,” coach Jason Garrett said after the season. “You have to come back from them. You have to play at a high level and we all understand that.”

The Cowboys’ second-round pick in 2014, DeMarcus Lawrence, did not record a regular-season sack as a rookie either. He missed the first seven games of his rookie season because of a broken foot suffered in training camp.

It took Lawrence until the playoffs to get on the sack scoreboard and he had two in two games, which brought hope for 2015.

Lawrence ended up leading the Cowboys in sacks in 2015 with eight but had just one in the first eight games. He finished with seven in the second half of the season.

The Cowboys’ hope is that Gregory can do in 2016 what Lawrence did in 2015.

“I do think Randy got better as the year went on,” Garrett said. “Unfortunately for Randy, really like DeMarcus, early on in the season in their first year, they missed time because of injury. Players learn so much when they first start playing because experiences are really vivid in their minds and when you don’t have an opportunity to play early on that sets them back a little bit. But you have to take advantage of the opportunity that you do get and I do think that when Randy did come back in the latter part of the year he played better and better as the year went on, not as productive as any of us would have liked but I do think he made strides.

“He has a long, long way to go though. We’ll get him back in here in the offseason and get him back to work and hopefully he’ll continue to improve.”