FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – It was a move that was met with guffaws from some. “Why would the Cowboys make Anthony Spencer their franchise player? This just goes to show that Jerry has no idea what he’s doing!”
I’m not going to touch that latter statement, but I will try to answer the former.
First, forget the term “franchise player”. It’s just a bad label the NFL has given for a maneuver that allows teams to keep a player on their roster for another year rather than lose him to free agency. It has nothing to do with what the term implies.
Second, Spencer is not as bad a player as some think. By no means a franchise player, but he’s not that bad at all.
It must be understood that Spencer does not play the same position as Demarcus Ware. In very simplified terms, he is primarily a strong side (left) OLB in the Cowboys 3-4. As the weak side (right) OLB, Ware’s main value is as a speed rusher. Most teams have right-handed QBs, so the right OLB is usually rushing from the QB’s blind side.
Furthermore, since most NFL offenses have right-handed QBs, their running games are usually right side oriented. Many times, the tight end will line up to the right side. Thus, the strong side OLB generally has a “stop the run-first” responsibility. With the tight end lined up on his side, typically, there is more traffic he has to deal with.
So, in assessing his value, Spencer’s numbers should be compared with other 3-4 strong OLBs, not with Demarcus Ware or other weak OLBs.
Here are the statistics for 3-4 SOLBs in 2011 with current contract details (source: NFL.com):
- Anthony Spencer, Dallas (1y, $8.8m): 66 tackles, 6 sacks
- Ryan Kerrigan, Wash (4y, $8.7m): 63 tackles, 7.5 sacks
- Justin Houston, KC (4y, $2.7m): 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks
- Jarret Johnson, Balt (4y, $19m): 56 tackles, 2.5 sacks
- Ahmad Brooks, SF (6y, $37m): 50 tackles, 7 sacks
- Clay Matthews, GB (5y,$9.9m): 50 tackles, 6 sacks
- Connor Barwin, Hous (4y, $4m): 47 tackles, 11.5 sacks
- Clark Haggans, Ariz (3y, $4.1m): 46 tackles, 3 sacks
- Robert Mathis, Indy (4y, $36m): 43 tackles, 9.5 sacks
- Shaun Phillips, SD (6y, $31m): 42 tackles, 3.5 sacks
- Lamarr Woodley, Pitt (6y, $61.5m): 39 tackles, 9 sacks
- Koa Misi, Mia (4y, 4.7m): 34 tackles, 1 sack
- Jamaal Westerman, NYJ (RFA): 32 tackles, 3.5 sacks
Keep in mind that some of the above SOLBs also spent at least a portion of the season playing WOLB. For example, Houston’s WOLB Mario Williams was injured early in the year so Connor Barwin racked up some of his sack numbers replacing Williams.
And, here are the stats for 3-4 WOLBs:
- Demarcus Ware, Dal (7y, $79m): 58 tackles, 19.5 sacks
- Terrell Suggs, Balt (6y, $62.5m): 70 tackles, 14 sacks
- Calvin Pace, NYJ (6y, $42m): 72 tackles, 4.5 sacks
- Tamba Hali, KC (5y, $57.5m): 66 tackles, 12 sacks
- Erik Walden, GB (UFA): 60 tackles, 3 sacks
- Brian Orakpo, Wash (5y, $15.4m): 59 tackles, 9 sacks
- James Harrison, Pitt (6y, $51.2m): 59 tackles, 9 sacks
- Brooks Reed, Hous (4y, $4.7m): 45 tackles, 6 sacks
- Mario Williams, Hous (6y, $96m): 11 tackles, 5 sacks (injured)
- Cameron Wake, Mia (4y, $2.3m): 42 tackles, 8.5 sacks
- Antwan Barnes, SD (2y, $3.2m): 41 tackles, 11 sacks
- Sam Acho, Ariz (4y, $2.5m): 40 tackles, 7 sacks
- Aldon Smith, SF (4y, $14.4m): 37 tackles, 14 sacks
- Dwight Freeney, Indy (6y, $72m): 19 tackles, 8.5 sacks
As you can see, the salaries being paid to WOLBs generally are far greater than those of SOLBs. That’s because these speed rushers have a greater impact on the game. The SOLB position, by its nature, doesn’t produce as many big plays…or big money for those who play the position.
Spencer’s production is on a par with other players who play the 3-4 SOLB. However, now that he has five years in the league and has reached free agency, the Cowboys would be well advised to find a younger, cheaper, and probably just as productive SOLB in this year’s draft.
The 49ers drafted Aldon Smith with the 7th overall pick last year, a 4 year, $14.4 million contract. Washington drafted Ryan Kerrigan with the 16th pick, a 4 year, $8.7 million contract. So, with the 14th pick, if the Cowboys select an OLB like Whitney Mercilus or Courtney Upshaw or Melvin Ingram, they’d probably pay him slightly above what Kerrigan makes.
Last year Houston selected Brooks Reed in the 2nd round (#42), a 4 year, $4.7 million contract. Kansas City picked Justin Houston in the 3rd round, a 4 year,$2.7 million deal. So, you can see the difference in compensation if the Cowboys wait until the 2nd or 3rd round to select an OLB like Ronnell Lewis, Vinny Curry, or Jake Bequette.
It’s the way of the world in the NFL. You can’t keep all your players when they reach free agency so you have to continue turning the roster over and manage your salary cap.
In the meantime, the Cowboys can keep Spencer for one season using the franchise tag, draft an OLB in one of the top 3rounds, find ways to use the new player in his rookie season and groom him to be the starter in 2013 while Spencer moves on. It’s what the 49ers did in 2011 with 1st round pick Aldon Smith, who recorded 14 sacks his rookie season as a 3rd down pass rusher while Parys Haralson was the starter.
Things seemed to work out pretty well for the Niners last season. Perhaps keeping Anthony Spencer for one more year while grooming his replacement will work out just as well for the Dallas defense.
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