SI 64: No. 3: Nebraska DE/OLB Randy Gregory
With the 2015 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
Suffice it to say, Randy Gregory's situation has changed a little. Three days after we finalized the SI 64 rankings, Gregory admitted to the NFL Network's Kimberly Jones that he had failed a drug test at this year's combine, a boneheaded error that left his draft stock teetering. Once a near-lock to land among the top-10 picks, Gregory now could slide into the middle of Round 1 or further.
Bio: Gregory remains in the Round 1 mix in spite of those off-field concerns because of his outstanding potential as a pass-rusher. Gregory now sits ninth all-time on Nebraska's career sacks list with 17.5, despite playing just two seasons for the Cornhuskers. During that short stretch, Gregory also notched 25.5 tackles for loss and 120 total tackles, plus earned first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-America nods in 2014.
"Growing up I really liked Osi Umenyiora, Aldon Smith, Von Miller, I’m a real big fan of a lot of guys," Gregory said at the NFL combine. "A lot of times I just put on YouTube and watch film. Growing up I used to just sit back and watch the NFL. Now I really break down the game and look at how they pass rush. ... Guys like J.J. Watt, they are technicians, and that is why they do what they do well. They work on the same thing day in and day out and it shows on the field."
But on account of the positive test, Gregory will begin his rookie season in Stage One of the league's substance-abuse program. Another infraction would push him to Stage Two, at which point he could be suspended up to four games. He tested positive for marijuana twice while at Nebraska.
"Am I worried? Yeah, I'm worried," he told Jones. "At the same time, I'm confident. I know I'm going to be all right in the end."
Gregory initially committed to Purdue out of high school before enrolling in Arizona Western C.C.—he spent two years there, though a broken leg cost him one entire season.
Once at Nebraska, he wasted little time cracking the lineup, earning 10 starts in 2013. His final college year started off slowly, as Gregory exited his team's opener against Florida Atlantic with a knee injury and underwent arthroscopic surgery shortly thereafter; he sat out the following week, then missed a matchup with Iowa late in the year.
Still, when he was on the field, few defensive players in the nation were as dominant.
Strengths: Gregory's ability to sneak into the backfield is remarkable, and Nebraska unleashed him in a variety of ways—three-point stance, two-point stance, blitzing the A-gap from an ILB spot. His frame can be viewed as a negative (more on that below), but when combined with his quickness it allows Gregory to split gaps that other, bulkier players might not be able to find. He is stronger than he looks, too, utilizing his hands to fend off tackles off the edge. Once he manages to turn the corner on an OT, it's over. Linemen simply do not have the foot speed to stick with Gregory if he gets the jump on them.
Gregory was part of the defensive-line group at the combine. His times there and at his pro day (4.64-second 40-yard dash, 6.79-second three-cone) are far more indicative of a linebacker's skill set. That's where the NFL will place him: as a 3–4 OLB or possibly as a Von Miller-esque attacker outside in a 4–3.
"I think I could do both, the 3–4 or the 4–3," Gregory said. "I am used to both, whether it's up and dropping into coverage or having my hand in the dirt and trying to get off the ball."
Gregory appears to have the mentality to handle multiple roles. He does not shy away from blockers, whether he's coming off the edge or meeting them near the second level. And once he has the ball in his sights, Gregory's finishing speed makes him a sideline-to-sideline threat.
Weaknesses: This part of the scouting report now must start with Gregory's past drug use. Although he says that he has left that part of his life behind, the positive test at the combine was not an unfortunate, one-time error.
"I don't wake up every day saying, 'I'd really love to go smoke,'" he told NFL.com. "It's not a struggle for me every day [now], it really isn't. In the past, hell yeah, it's been a struggle. It really has been. Now, I'm focused on my dream."
Will that be enough to convince NFL teams?
Strictly from a football standpoint, the clear overarching worry about Gregory has to do with his size. He weighed in at 235 at the combine, but he played at a reported 218 during the season. While his game packs more of a punch than the scale would say, there is definite reason to wonder if Gregory can consistently help set an edge as a DE/OLB. Adding his injury history only makes him a tougher sell—he struggled to make it through the 2014 Nebraska season, so staying healthy for a full 16-game NFL slate will be a challenge.
If he is to play linebacker on a full-time basis, Gregory will need significant seasoning in coverage and in reading run plays. Odds are, he will be utilized most often as he was at Nebraska: as a downhill rusher. There is a significant gap between that role and three-down linebacking.
As a pass-rusher Gregory can be a beat slow off the ball. Against college linemen he made up for that hesitation with his speed. He might not be able to recover as well in the NFL.
Conclusion: Before his positive drug test, Gregory had a claim as the draft's top edge-rusher, even in a class loaded with talent at that spot. Now, his talent level keeps him in that mix but there's an obvious red flag flying over his head.
The extreme light frame aside, Gregory's combination of speed, power and aggressiveness makes him the type of rookie who could contribute in a big way—with an extremely promising career on the horizon. Can an NFL team trust him? Gregory can only answer that question in time. As a result this potential top-five pick could find himself in the "steal" range in the first or second round.