Randy Gregory hasn’t had the smoothest road during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. His first five seasons were plagued with suspensions due to violating the NFL’s old substance abuse policy. However, the last few years have been different.

Gregory has gotten his life off the field under control, and thanks to the league no longer testing for marijuana, which was the only thing that kept him off the field anyway, he has been free to become the player he was intended to be coming out of Nebraska in 2015. In the last two seasons, albeit with a few roadblocks in terms of injuries and COVID, Gregory has become the team’s top priority free agent in 2022.

After being conditionally reinstated and signing a one-year extension, Gregory missed the first six games of the 2020 season. Once he was on the field though, the former Cornhusker reminded the world why he was so sought-after years ago. Gregory logged 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 12 quarterback hits in the 10 games he played in. What makes it more impressive was that he did so in limited action.

Former Cowboys’ defensive end Aldon Smith was the primary starter opposite DeMarcus Lawrence that season. Due to this, Gregory only played more than 50% of the team’s defensive snaps twice. Smith had four sacks in the first three games but only registered one more for the rest of the season. Despite this dip in production, Smith continued to get the lion share of the snaps over Gregory, and the former second-round pick felt like favorites were being played under the old coaching regime.

“I felt there was a little bit of favoritism going on … refusing to let me outshine their favorite,” Gregory said. “They knew I could do it, so they did what they could to keep me at bay. I had my times when I was angry and I used to talk to Peter (agent) about it, and the best thing I could do was just go out there on the field with the plays they give me and make those plays worth it. I did that, but I truly felt I got robbed of a year last year.”

With Smith no longer on the roster, Gregory would have his shot to be a full-time starter in 2021. His season got off to a good start albeit in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a fumble recovery after Lawrence made a play on running back Ronald Jones. Unfortunately for Gregory, he would miss the Cowboys Week 2 matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers due to testing positive for COVID. Once he returned in Week 3 though, Gregory got back to causing havoc.

Gregory was all over the field in the Cowboys’ Week 4 victory over the Carolina Panthers. He had two sacks and amassed a career-high four quarterback hits. Two weeks later in a win against the New England Patriots, Gregory had another two-sack performance which was highlighted by a strip-sack on quarterback Mac Jones in the second quarter.

Week 14 was probably the best all-around performance of the year for Gregory. Not only did he register a sack and a forced fumble, but he showed incredible athleticism and concentration by tipping the ball to himself and hauling in an interception in the first quarter of the Cowboys’ 27-20 win.

Gregory had his best professional season in 2021. He tied career highs in sacks (6) and forced fumbles (3). He racked up 17 quarterback hits, as well, which is the most he’s ever had in one year. As the page turns to the 2022 season, the Cowboys would be wise to not let Gregory leave the building.

They are currently about $21 million over the projected $208 million salary cap for the NFL next season. They can easily get under that number with a bevy of restructured deals to players like the aforementioned Lawrence, Amari Cooper, and Dak Prescott. Whatever the route the Cowboys want to take to clear up cap space, Gregory needs to be signed long-term as soon as it’s done, or at worst case be slapped with the franchise tag which is expected to be around $17.5 million for 2022 according to Spotrac.

Retaining Gregory for the Cowboys makes sense for several reasons. The first is obvious, he’s a fantastic talent and arguably the most natural pass rusher on the Cowboys with his explosive bend around the edge. Although he’ll be 30 in November and is entering his eighth season in the NFL, Gregory has only played in 50 games which are the equivalent of around three seasons so he doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body that most players have at his age.

There’s also the Lawrence factor as well. He has a cap hit of $27 million next season. The Cowboys could save $12 million by restructuring Lawrence which would aid in keeping Gregory. However, seeing as releasing Lawrence is also an option, it would behoove the Cowboys to make sure Gregory is on the roster going forward to give them some stability at defensive end in the event Lawrence doesn’t return.

March will be a big month for the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to bringing back the free agents they have and acquiring new talent to compete for the Super Bowl this upcoming season. The first name on that list should be Gregory as the Cowboys look to have another good year defensively in 2022 under Dan Quinn.

Feature image via-Tim Heitman of USA TODAY Sports