SANTA CLARA — The problem for Randy Gregory has never been playing on the edge in a football sense.
Virtually everyone agrees he is an explosive, twitchy athlete who at 6-foot-5 and 242 pounds was born to rush the passer.
Living on the edge in an everyday sense has been more of a problem, although Gregory has worked to sort out myriad issues which have stalled his ascension to being the kind of player his skillset suggests.
Acquired by the 49ers at virtually no risk from the Denver Broncos late last week, Gregory went through his first practice with his new team Wednesday and was asked if he was ready to be an immediate contributor Sunday against the host Cleveland Browns.
“I don’t doubt it, but it’s not up to me,” Gregory said. “It’s practice, and the rest of the week will tell what I’m able to do out there.”
Signed as the heir apparent to Von Miller by the Broncos before the 2022 season, Gregory wound up playing in 10 of 21 games because of knee and shoulder injuries. The Broncos, under new coach Sean Payton, dealt him and a seventh-round draft pick to the 49ers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.
Not only that, but Denver will pay more than $10 million in salary for the rest of the season with the 49ers on the hook for only a prorated portion of the veteran minimum. Salaries of $13.745 million in 2024 and $12.745 million in 2025-26 are not guaranteed.
In Denver, they’re calling it the worst free agent signing in franchise history.
Gregory, who at one point missed 52 of 96 games on four suspensions for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, has steered clear of trouble since October 2020. But with the Broncos floundering on defense — Gregory didn’t register a tackle in a 70-20 loss to Miami in Week 3 — they opted to move on.
“You know how the NFL goes. I’d been there for two years, I had two new staffs,” Gregory said. “They’re looking to rebuild, get some new leadership. Ultimately I wasn’t part of that plan.”
As far as his personal life, Gregory, 30, believes he is in a good place. He’s married with children aged 7 and 4, as well as a 6-month-old baby.
“I have everything where it needs to be,” Gregory said. “Mentally, if I’m in order in that aspect I’m pretty good. My family life is pretty good right now. Kids are happy, fed. I have a newborn so I’m little bit worried about that. I want to be home with him, but I understand what’s at stake but I’m a big boy and I’ve got a job to take care of.”
— Jerry McDonald (@Jerrymcd) October 11, 2023
In a 2021 interview with The Athletic, Gregory detailed a past that included using marijuana and psychedelics in his teens while still being a standout at Hamilton Southeastern High in Fishers, Indiana. He began failing drug tests in college at Nebraska following two years in junior college at Arizona Western.
Although dominant at Nebraska, teams dug into his background and he went from a potential top-10 pick to a second-rounder by Dallas. There were bouts with with social anxiety disorder and losing large sums of money at casinos.
Gregory managed to rebuild his career in 2020 and 2021 in Dallas with 9 1/2 sacks and was a disruptive presence in a 2021 playoff loss to the 49ers, earning a big contract in Denver.
Through it all, Gregory was never considered a disruptive presence in the locker room.
“Randy was a great teammate, never gave anybody any problems,” said 49ers cornerback Anthony Brown, a teammate in Dallas. “Never caused any commotion. Gave his all on the field and I’m glad we have him here.”
Dallas owner Jerry Jones told The Athletic: “There is a warmth to Gregory. He’s engaging and thoughtful. He smiles almost all the time. “He’s one of the most popular players we’ve had on the Cowboys. Everybody roots for him.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan said “guys close to him and guys that I know vouch for him” and respected locker room leaders Trent Williams and Arik Armstead gave the acquisition an enthusiastic thumbs-up last week.
Gregory went home to Denver to for the weekend and watched the 49ers’ 42-10 win over his former team with interest.
“I have a lot of guys I care about on that team in Dallas and staff I care about,” Gregory said. “Being able to sit there and watch it unfold, being a rivalry game, was fun. I spent time there, but I’m on a new team an excited to get that win.”
Gregory realized instantly his old team was in deep trouble against his new one when the 49ers got the ball and drove 75 yards for a touchdown to open the game.
“Me and my wife were talking about it, thinking the Cowboys look a little spooked,” Gregory said. “That’s not bulletin board material, but it speaks to the level of intensity we came out with and carried out throughout the course of the game.”
Gregory’s previous transgressions have invited skeptics, which he understands but hopes to win over through his play.
“The big thing for me is trying to prove people wrong and put the NFL back on notice, doing the things I can do well and end up being a good teammate,” Gregory said.
The hope for the 49ers is Gregory can add another potential rusher off the edge to complement Bosa, who has 1 1/2 sacks through three games but according to ProFootballFocus.com is among league leaders among edge rushers in pressures with 27.
Second-year player Drake Jackson has no sacks since getting three in the opener and Clelin Ferrell as expected has shown an ability to set the edge but has no sacks as a pass rusher.
Gregory, like every player who joins the 49ers defensive line, is enthusiastic about a rush-first, ask-questions-later scheme that doesn’t include a lot of reading and reacting.
And instead of playing with deficits in Denver which restricted pass rush opportunities, the 49ers have have outscored opponents by 99 points in five games and get lots of chances to rush the passer.
“I’m not coming in with any expectations other than to win,” Gregory said. “I think they know what I do well. The big part is getting me back to where they believe I’m at my best. I’m going to take every day slowly, embrace it all, and learn as much as I can. I’m excited. I know they are too. I just want to get on the field and play.”