Cowboys' Randy Gregory project features plan to bulk him up and mentorship from a Hall of Famer

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

IRVING, Texas – Somewhere on the drive to the Dallas Cowboys' rookie minicamp last week, a cell phone conversation with an AFC personnel man took a detour into jealous indignation. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had just signed undrafted rookie La'el Collins, a first-round selection who fell off every NFL board after he was sought for questioning in a murder case in which he wasn't a suspect. Now the LSU All-American had been added to a team that was already filthy rich in offensive line talent.

"It figured he'd end up there," the personnel man said with a tinge of annoyance over the signing. "[Jerry Jones] is in his gear now. When your owner is the general manager, it's just a little easier. He can just make that decision and it's done. He wants him, whatever he decides the process is, boom – done.

"[Jerry will] walk closer to that line and take chances if he thinks it's coming together. But signing La'el might actually be safer than a couple of their other moves lately." 

Randy Gregory had some conditioning issues at Cowboys rookie minicamp (AP)
Randy Gregory had some conditioning issues at Cowboys rookie minicamp (AP)

Full disclosure: This personnel man was speaking from a slightly biased viewpoint. His franchise made an unsuccessful overture to get into what Collins' agent called the "La'el sweepstakes," and was also interested in Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory (who the Cowboys chose in the second round). Ultimately, this particular AFC team got neither player, getting shunned by Collins and passing on Gregory after he failed a drug test at the scouting combine.

All of that said, he made an interesting point – the part about some of these moves being the Jerry Jones gear. If anything, the Collins signing and drafting of Gregory is the exclamation mark on an irrefutable truth: These Cowboys are taking calculated gambles all over the place, shaping a roster that is as full of possibility as potential mayhem. It's something the NFL world has seen since Jones signed defensive end Greg Hardy – the richer the talent base gets, the more hip-shootin' Jones seems to get.

First came Hardy. Then came Gregory. Then Collins. And finally, after all that, Jones tosses it out there that Dallas may be willing to trade its 2016 first-round pick if it thinks a particular player can put the franchise over the top. The only way Jones could have trolled fans any harder was if he made the announcement and then plugged in an "ADRIAN PETERSON" bat signal.

Not that you needed a signal for the obvious. Dallas is getting wild again.

None of this is to say that this is a bad thing. The franchise is most definitely taking gambles. But the Cowboys seem to be taking steps to at least partially reduce the risk along the way. Take Hardy, for example. Aside from a public-relations hit, the most hurtful part of that signing is that the team restructured quarterback Tony Romo's deal to make Hardy's pre-suspension salary possible. The brain trust didn't want to do that, but Hardy was too much of a talent for Jones to pass up. The benefits and pitfalls of that decision will be played out over several seasons.

Gregory, on the other hand, will be the wager that tests the Cowboys right now – on multiple fronts. It's clear that despite his immense talent, he is coming in as a project. Physically, he looks more like a basketball player now than an every-down defensive end. He needs to add a significant amount of weight and keep it on, and that's no guarantee. One scout said Gregory's weight issues reminded him of former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney, a player who was known to eat four massive meals a day, and a huge plate of pasta before he went to bed. And that was just to keep weight on.

Charles Haley in 1994. (AP)
Charles Haley in 1994. (AP)

Until Gregory, who weighed 235 pounds at the combine, can get himself consistently between 250-260 pounds, teams will run straight at him. That likelihood will translate into him platooning as only a pass-rush specialist. His talent suggests he's better than that. But his body will have to catch up, and his extremely low body fat percentage already leaves him a candidate for cramping and dehydration without proper maintenance (see: the dizziness and vomiting from his first day of rookie minicamps).

"He'll run," head coach Jason Garrett said of Gregory. "He'll lift. Obviously we want to be aware of his nutrition just like all the guys' nutrition. Hopefully he gets bigger as he goes. We don't feel like he's too small to play. We do think he has a frame over the course of time that can develop and can add some more weight. But we want to teach him football and how we do things first and foremost, and get him into our offseason program."

And the rest of his potential issues? The immaturity? The failed drug tests?

For that, the Cowboys have already surrounded Gregory with an intriguing axis of guidance. He's had defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and former defensive end Charles Haley in his ear. His locker this past weekend was situated next to Dez Bryant's. And his friend and predraft workout partner, Collins (whom he shares an agent with) will be with him for every rookie step.

"I always coach the man first, and then I coach the player second," Marinelli said. "Set standards and hold them to the standards every day. Accountability and then work. There's no option on work. Then you find out how much a man loves it. And then, open competition. If you really like it, you'll get it done right."

Apparently no opportunity for growth will be wasted, either. After his first rookie minicamp practice (in which he wore Haley's No. 94), Gregory had Haley call to him and then walk him out of the locker room following a media session. For nearly 10 minutes – out of the earshot of anyone – Haley stood with Gregory beyond a curtain. Haley spoke almost the entire time, with Gregory nodding and listening. Afterward, Haley patted him on the shoulder and left.

"He's got a lot to say," Gregory said of Haley. "… He just talks a little bit of [stuff] to me. That's all. I think everybody already knows that. He's a good guy. I think he expects big things from wearing that [94] number. He obviously doesn't want anybody coming in here and messing up that legacy.

"The main thing is, is just trying to keep all the baggage outside of the locker room. I think that's what we're doing. I think that's what Dez [Bryant] has done. I think that's what guys at my position have done that have been here in the past. That's what I'm going to do."

Interestingly, Collins might be the lynchpin that makes the Gregory risk palatable. Indeed, Collins might have changed more than anyone realized. First, signing him as an undrafted free agent effectively gave the Cowboys a first-round pick for the cost of nothing. Yes, he'll have a $1.65 million total payout over three years, but that's a drop in the salary-cap bucket.

The bottom line is that if Collins makes it – if he's a quality player and eventual starter, the Cowboys have a huge net gain in baseline talent that mitigates any potential failures of Gregory. And if Gregory fulfills his talent, then you have a franchise hitting a slot machine twice. None of which even takes into account the future of cornerback Byron Jones, the Cowboys' No. 1 draft pick who has the unique opportunity to start his career far down the marquee.

And that's another unintended upside of all this. The Dallas marquee is so full at the moment with Hardy, Gregory and Collins, the offseason vultures are hardly picking at the typical offseason wounds. When was the last time Romo went an entire offseason without being a local and national punching bag? How has Bryant's lack of an extension become a yawning subplot? Where has all the worry gone about the departure of DeMarco Murray?

All of those questions can still be asked about these Cowboys. But that's seemingly for another place and a later date. Perhaps training camp in 10 weeks. Until then, we've all been left to marvel at Jones and the Cowboys getting into their gear, taking their measured chances and maybe creeping closer to being the most-talked about NFL team of this season.

And lest your eye or ear wander too far, just remember, Jerry Jones has a 2016 first-round pick that is officially on the trading block. Any takers?

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