FRISCO, Texas (AP) A few hours before the Dallas Cowboys learned they will be without suspended defensive end Randy Gregory for at least a year, linebacker Jaylon Smith talked optimistically about making his debut in 2017 after spending his rookie season recovering from a major knee injury.
They represent second-round gambles from the past two drafts for owner and general manager Jerry Jones, whose offensive foundation was illustrated by four young players on The Associated Press All-Pro team released Friday while his defense faces a much more uncertain future.
If Gregory’s one-year suspension for another violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy is offset by Smith’s left knee allowing him to fulfill the promise that prompted Dallas to pick him, Jones envisions a young core that covers both sides of the ball – all three from the same draft.
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The other two, of course, are rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the quarterback-running back combo that helped the Cowboys (13-3) win a franchise-record 11 straight games and earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Dallas opens the playoffs at home Jan. 15.
”If I pictured some triplets right now, it might be Jaylon, Dak and Zeke,” Jones said, a reference to the 1990s Super Bowl-winning trio of quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and receiver Michael Irvin.
”As a matter of fact, you look up and you’ll see them hanging around together a little bit. Still, Jaylon is of that stature. I know I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not getting out over my skis, though. He’s the real deal. I’m confident of that.”
At the same time, Jones acknowledged that Prescott’s emergence as a fourth-round pick gives the Cowboys a bargain at generally the most expensive position, which means free agency could be in play for a defense that needs pass-rushing help and might be retooling at cornerback.
Dallas also has to be mindful of a looming payday for right guard Zack Martin, who has earned two All-Pro nods in three seasons.
Left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick, two other All-Pro choices along with Elliott, already have their second contracts.
”But if we have other space, we’ll be able to address in all likelihood, defense,” Jones said.
The Cowboys didn’t want to say it, but Jaylon Smith appeared to be a pick for 2017 from the beginning. He tore two ligaments and sustained nerve damage in his left knee in his final college game for Notre Dame at the Fiesta Bowl, about four months before the draft.
Smith said this week he believes he could have contributed in the playoffs and for the first time acknowledged that he is feeling the nerve regeneration considered crucial for him returning to the form that had him headed for a lofty draft spot before the injury.
”I think I could have played and competed at an elite level,” Smith said. ”But with us coming together and realizing the situation with the nerve coming back, we’re going to be patient.”
As for whether Gregory will ever join Smith, Jones said he will continue to support the former Nebraska standout who slid in the 2015 draft because of issues with marijuana.
Like Smith, he was considered a top-10 talent. However, he tested positive for marijuana at the NFL combine.
The 24-year-old Gregory has spent time in rehab and was allowed to work out with the team before the latest suspension.
The yearlong ban will require him to stay away from the team’s headquarters except to meet with the person in charge of his treatment program.
Gregory will have to apply to Commissioner Roger Goodell for reinstatement, and Jones said he expects Gregory to play for the Cowboys again. It likely won’t be before 2018, the last year of his rookie contract.
It was the third suspension of the season for Gregory, who was banned the first 14 games before playing the final two games of the regular season and recording his first career sack in the finale at Philadelphia. The latest suspension knocked him out of the playoffs.
”He’s genuine in his effort,” Jones said. ”This does not reflect some of the success that he’s having and has had. I do have reason to be encouraged about his future.”
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