Cowboys hope Randy Gregory can answer pass-rush questions

FRISCO, Texas -- Despite being a second-round pick out of Nebraska in 2015, Dallas Cowboys pass-rusher Randy Gregory remains a mystery mostly because of a series of suspensions from the NFL that have limited him to 28 of a potential 86 career games.

The last time Gregory was in a Cowboys uniform was for a 2018 divisional-round playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams. Even with the long layoff, there are high hopes for his performance when he makes his 2020 debut Sunday against the Washington Football Team (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

The expectations might speak to the desperation of a Cowboys defense on pace to allow an NFL-record 581 points, or it might speak to Gregory's ability.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott said Gregory last week was "lights out" and "hard to block" in practices. Coach Mike McCarthy and right guard Zack Martin made similar comments.

"Randy is a baller," Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith said. "When he has the green light, it's on."

Gregory missed four games as a rookie with an ankle injury, and he played in two of 16 games in 2016. He sat out the entire 2017 and 2019 seasons while indefinitely suspended because of a number of violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy. He was conditionally reinstated in September, and according to many in the Cowboys' organization, he has followed all of the necessary protocols such as testing and rehab to get back onto the field.

He has practiced the past two weeks, going through his second padded practice Thursday. Even from afar as the coach of the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy liked what he saw in Gregory.

"Obviously, what jumps off the video before arriving here is just his athletic ability, his ability to bend, his twitch," McCarthy said. "He can do a lot from that position. He's not only tough as a rusher, he's a playmaker. He can play in space. There is not anything he can't do from a coverage responsibility. A very versatile athlete."

The Cowboys have 11 sacks on the season, led by linebacker Aldon Smith’s four. But three of Smith's sacks came in the Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Their other top pass-rushers, DeMarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen, have 1 and 1.5 sacks, respectively.

McCarthy put the lack of any pass-rush success on a lack of opportunities because opponents have not been in many favorable down-and-distance situations.

"The opportunities aren't there as much for our pass-rush unit," McCarthy said.

Gregory had six sacks in 2018, second most on the team, in 14 games. In the other 14 games of his career, he has one sack.

Martin, who has not practiced this week because of a concussion, said Gregory has added some size to his frame while still maintaining his quickness. Gregory's exact role in his return is unknown, although McCarthy said he prefers to use a rotation to keep pass-rushers fresh.

Smith had not played in a game since Nov. 15, 2015, after returning from suspension. While he has gone four games without a sack, he has still exceeded expectations.

"You hope Randy, when he gets his chance, has got a little of the same thing in him," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones told ESPN recently. "Now, the difference in the two is Aldon had, what, one year with 20 sacks in San Francisco? Nineteen? Obviously Randy has never done that, but Randy has always pressured and played at a high level when he did play."