The Cowboys showed Greg Ellis the door, and handed Anthony Spencer the LOLB, though Spencer's sack totals were not close to the veterans. The team reasoned that Spencer's performance curve is still trending upwards, which Ellis' as due a steep drop.
In run defense, that was certainly true. Spencer, unlike most pass-rushing prospects, adapted to run defense first. (Consider Demarcus Ware's curve, and how much he struggled against runs at him his first year and a half.)
After three preseason games, it appears Spencer has made strides as a rusher, but still needs one last piece to complete his repertoire
Spencer plays the strong side in Dallas' scheme, meaning he and Ware always flop against strong formations (with a single tight end) with Spencer moving with the tight end. Depending on the scheme, he frequently drops into coverage and takes backs or covers anybody entering the short left zone.
Spencer shows a lot of hustle and range. Perfect passes are completed against him, but he's usually on the spot to make an instant stop. Dropping comes easily for him, which is impressive considering he rushed almost all the time at Purdue.
He's also stout against the run and shows strong recognition and closing skills on runs inside or away from him. He blew up a 'Niners wildcat play by ignoring the fake and showed he could get through traffic and drag down runners on inside plays.
The biggest improvement this summer has come on rushes. Understand that Wade Phillips' default rush brings five guys. He'll rush four sometimes and six or even seven on occasion, but Dallas brings five on more than half its pass plays.
This means plenty of rush chances for Spencer, since he's the fifth guy most of the time. (He's not always the guy, since Wade likes rushing his inside backers and safeties too.) What's more, with many teams sliding their protection towards Ware and away from Spencer, he often faces tight ends or backs instead of tackles.
Spencer breezes past backs like they were scarecrows. In the last two games, I've recorded three pressure and a sack for Spencer; in every case he beat a back or tight end.
He still struggles, however, when he has to beat tackles. Spencer needs to improve his hand usage; specifically, he has trouble getting tackles hands off his body. What he could really use right now, is the sort of tutorial Ellis used to give Demarcus Ware two years ago.
Ellis, like Jim Jeffcoat before him, was a master of leverage, a hand-chop, and of changing speeds. He was the pass rushing equivalent of a good off-speed pitcher in baseball. Ellis never beat you with raw speed, but he could go slow, slower and then fast, keeping tackles off balance. He mastered a chop that he timed with the OT's punchout. When the tackle's hands were down, Ellis would hit the accelerator and explode around the corner.
This is the type of move Spencer lacks. He may never master it, but if he can add something like this to his game, he'll have the game to beat tackles and backs alike. He's already pretty good. Can he be great? It's all in his hands now.