The Dallas Cowboys made two of the most interesting selections of the 2015 NFL Draft, taking cornerback Byron Jones with the No.27 overall pick and defensive end Randy Gregory at No.60 overall. Having selected two players with a lot of upside, the defending NFC East champs are hoping they found the steals of the draft.
The picks of Jones and Gregory have garnered a lot of attention for very different reasons. Playing for Connecticut in relative obscurity as one of the top college football players in the country, Jones was picked higher than many experts had projected. Gregory was thought to be a top-10 pick when he left Nebraska, but off-the-field issues cost him millions of dollars and the chance to be taken near the top of the draft.
While Gregory’s character issues gave teams around the league pause, Jones’ attitude was considered a plus.
"High-character player with the vision and instincts you want from an NFL cornerback. I'm not sure I like him in man coverage but there is a place for him in our league. Really nice young man who you cheer for," an NFC North scout said of Jones on NFL.com.
Jones might have been unknown by many NFL fans throughout his college career, but he made a name for himself at February’s Scouting Combine. He set a record at the event with a broad jump of 12-feet, three inches. He also impressed with a vertical jump of 44.5 inches, which was one of the best performances ever by a cornerback at a combine.
A shoulder injury forced Jones to miss half of last season. There are concerns that he isn’t physical enough, and some believe he might be best served as a safety because he won’t be able to keep pace with top receivers. But Jones has shown enough tools that the Cowboys are hoping he can produce more than most late first-rounders.
The issues that Gregory are dealing with are somewhat of a mystery. While he failed a test for marijuana at the combine and admitted to doing so twice at Nebraska, drugs might not be Gregory’s biggest problem.
"That's something I've definitely been working on and something I can definitely fix," Gregory told ESPN Radio, via The Dallas Morning News. "I'm 22 years old but I think I carry myself real well and I think I need to carry myself a little bit better as far as decision-making goes."
A somewhat ambiguous report on NFL.com said teams took Gregory off their draft boards because they were unsure if he had the “ability to handle the mental rigors of professional football.” Whatever Gregory’s issues may be, the Cowboys appear confident that they can help Gregory produce up to his capabilities.
If Gregory is able to avoid any major problems away from football, he could end up being the biggest steal of the draft. Gregory proved at Nebraska that he has the talent to be a top defensive end in the NFL. In 2013, he recorded 10.5 sacks, 17 tackles for a loss and an interception. Playing two fewer games last year, Gregory had seven sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and a pick, being named First-Team All-Big Ten.
Dallas has shown that they aren’t shy of adding players to their roster that have had off-the-field issues. Greg Hardy played just one game last year after being put on the Exempt List for his domestic violence arrest, and the Cowboys gave him a contract this offseason.
The Cowboys have had plenty of success with high-risk players. Dallas COO Stephen Jones told Peter King of Sports Illustrated that Dez Bryant “scared” the Cowboys more than Gregory, and he’s turned out to be arguably the team’s best player. Michael Irvin had issues off the field, but he became a Hall of Famer, and Gregory hopes the three-time Super Bowl winner can be his mentor.
Dallas hopes Jones or Gregory can be nearly as good as their first pick from a year ago. Offensive tackle Zack Martin was named First-Team All-Pro, helping to give the Cowboys the league’s top running game.