Randy Gregory is back, and not a moment too soon. just ahead of the 2020 season, the 27-year-old returned to practice leading into the Week 5 matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants, but couldn't yet return to live games as he sat two additional weeks on the commissioner's exempt list. Gregory was/is officially eligible to return to play on Oct. 25, when the Cowboys take on the Washington Football Team, and he's taken one huge step in potentially making that a reality. On Tuesday, the talented pass rusher was removed from the reserve list and placed on the Cowboys active roster, putting him on track to take the field this Sunday for the first time since 2018.
"Randy's going to have the opportunity to prepare to play this week," head coach Mike McCarthy told media on Tuesday. "So we'll see how the week of preparation goes, but I thought he had an excellent week last week [in practice]."
The team released wide receiver Ventell Bryant and defensive back Saivion Smith in corresponding roster moves.
For his part, Gregory has been drooling for a chance to return to the NFL and finish what he started as the Cowboys second-round pick in 2015. The 27-year-old played well for the Cowboys in 2018, his longest stretch of availability since joining the team, delivering a career-high six sacks, 15 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 14 games with just a single start. Selected with the 60th-overall pick in 2015, the former two-time first-team All-Big Ten honoree was available for 12 games but suffered a high ankle sprain that cost him four games.
From there, things took a dark turn in his young NFL career.
Gregory, who has since been diagnosed with bipolar depression and clinical anxiety and now uses marijuana to self-medicate, failed a drug test that led to a four-game suspension handed down in February 2016. That was followed by the league handing down an extended suspension due to additional testing issues that added a 10-game ban at the back end of the initial four-game punishment. He'd return to play in the final two games of the 2016 season, landing his first career sack in the process, but yet another run-in with the league's substance abuse policy one month prior led to an eventual year-long suspension -- sidelining him in the playoffs that year and for the entirety of his 2017 season.
Gregory was reinstated in July 2018 and had the best season of his career, as noted above, before being given an indefinite suspension in January 2019 that cost him the following season. It's been a long road back for Gregory, but he plans on sticking around for the next several years to come.
"I will be back this year," Gregory told CBS Sports months ahead of his reinstatement. "Difference is, I'll be back for good this time."
His ability to terrorize opposing quarterbacks is desperately missed right now in Dallas, as the defense struggles to consistently get pressure outside of Aldon Smith -- who himself was reinstated this season. Smith led the league in sacks going into Week 4 with four total, and no other player has more than one (two of those players being defensive backs). All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is battling a knee injury that's severely dampened his playing time and newly-acquired talent such as Dontari Poe and Everson Griffen aren't playing up to standard.
Having lost Gerald McCoy for the season before it even began, then subsequently releasing him, there's plenty of room for Gregory to return and get back to burning the edge. Inserting the former second-round pick into the defensive front in two weeks gives the Cowboys the ability to rush him opposite Smith in certain sets and to spell Smith in others, making for a much more threatening front. That should become music to the ears of a porous secondary, who is struggling in coverage and could use some pressure up front to remove it from the back end.
Gregory had six sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 2018 despite logging just one start in 14 games -- after having not played in 2017 and with only two games in 2016 under his belt due to suspension -- hinting at his freakish ability to step right in after a long hiatus and get right to work. The Cowboys are currently seeing the same in Smith, and there's a great chance the team's sack leaders for 2020 will end up being two players who many thought would never again take an NFL snap.
With Smith and Gregory on great footing mentally in their battle with their respective demons, and with the league's newly-relaxed stance on the use of marijuana, the door is wide open for Gregory to finally become what he and the Cowboys have been waiting for.
"I am happy," Gregory said to me in March. "And in a better place mentally more than ever."
The two sides agreed to a one-year extension immediately following his reinstatement, keeping him in tow through the 2021 season and giving him a chance to earn up to $2.1 million next season. As for this season, he's now just a few days away from again making his presence felt in the NFL.