Do The Cowboys Have The Best Outside Linebackers In The NFL?

In his divisional preview of the NFC East on SI.com, Ross Tucker opines that the Cowboys may have the best tandem of outside pass rushers in the league:

DeMarcus Ware has long been the gold standard among outside linebackers when it comes to rushing the passer and 2009 was no different as he notched double-digit sacks for the fourth consecutive year.

What was different in 2009, especially down the stretch, was the emergence of former first-round pick Anthony Spencer. He had six sacks in the final six games of the regular season before continuing that trend in the postseason, when he tacked on an additional sack in each one of those contests.

For Cowboys fans, this does not come as a surprise. After all, we've marveled at the Ferociousness of DeMarcus Ware for years now, and Spencer's emergence hasn't gone unnoticed either. But just how good are the two Cowboys OLBs compared to their NFL peers, and will they be the best tandem in the league this year?

To understand just how good a tandem Spencer and Ware could be, we need to look at their peers going into the 2010 season. With Elvis Dumervil out for the season on the Bronco's IR, Jason Taylor moving from the Dolphins to the Jets and Aaron Kampman leaving the Packers for the Jaguars, the 3-4 OLB landscape in 2010 will change significantly versus 2009.

Based on the cbssports.com depth charts for each team, below is a table with the projected 2010 starters at OLB and their production in 2009.

2010 3-4 OLB projected starters and 2009 regular season production
Team
Starting LOLB
Starting ROLB
Player Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Player Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries
ARI Clark Haggans 5.5 4 17 Joey Porter* 9 4 12
BAL Jarret Johnson 6 7 9 Terrell Suggs 4.5 2 14
BUF Chris Kelsay 5.5 5 12 Reggie Torbor* 1 3 1
CLE Matt Roth 4 3 13 Scott Fujita* 1 1 3
DAL Anthony Spencer 6 19 29 DeMarcus Ware 11.5 15 29
DEN Mario Haggan 1 3 5 Robert Ayers 0 7 5
GB Clay Matthews 10 12 21 Brandon Chillar 2 1 4
KC Mike Vrabel 2 1 12 Tamba Hali 8.5 7 26
MIA Kao Misi* - - - - - - Cameron Wake 5.5 4 8
NYJ Bryan Thomas 2 4 8 Calvin Pace 8 1 16
NE Derrick Burgess 5 7 16 Tully Banta-Cain 10 8 18
PIT LaMarr Woodley 13.5 14 27 James Harrison 10 9 25
SD Shaun Phillips 7 7 11 Shawne Merriman 4 2 11
SF Manny Lawson 6.5 11 14 Parys Haralson 5 10 18
WAS Brian Orakpo 11 5 21 Andre Carter 11 14 21

Using 2009 numbers might not be absolutely fair to both the players and the teams. After all, some teams, like the Packers have only run the 3-4 for a year, others like the Bills and Redskins will run if for the first time this year. Some players were injured last year or had to move positions or joined new teams(*). Regardless, these are the best numbers we have. Note that these numbers are from Football Outsiders, and in some instances do not match with the numbers of the official NFL scorekeepers.

To add up the numbers of the OLB tandems above I'll use a formula for Pass Rushing Points as proposed by Khaled Elsayed of Profootballfocus.com.

Total Sacks + (Total Hits x 0.75) + (Total Hurries x 0.75) = Pass Rushing Points
Pass Rushing Points by OLB Tandem
Team Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Pass Rushing Points
DAL 17.5 34 58 86.5
PIT 23.5 23 52 79.8
WAS 22 19 42 67.8
NE 15 15 34 51.8
SF 11.5 21 32 51.3
KC 10.5 8 38 45.0
ARI 14.5 8 29 42.3
GB 12 13 25 40.5
BAL 10.5 9 23 34.5
SD 11 9 22 34.3
NYJ 10 5 24 31.8
BUF 6.5 8 13 22.3
CLE 5 4 16 20.0
DEN 1 10 10 16.0
MIA 5.5 4 8 14.5

We all know that past performance is no indicator of future success, but based on the 2009 numbers, Cowboys fans should go into the season relatively optimistic regarding their OLB tandem.

Two other data points could see Ware's and Spencer's numbers improve over 2009:

The last eight games: In the last eight games last year, including the two playoff games, Spencer recorded eight sacks, 18 QB hits, 13 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Double those numbers and you begin to understand what a pass rushing beast (and dominating run stuffer!) Spencer could be opposite DeMarcus Ware. Ware was no slouch himself either, and over the same span of games recorded seven sacks, five tackles for loss, 14 QB hits and four forced fumbles.

Regression to the mean: When someone pulls out the regression to the mean argument, it's usually all about an expected decline in production. Here are DeMarcus Ware's sack totals from 2005-2009: 8, 11.5, 14, 20, 11.

Consider that Ware played with a fractured foot the first half of last season and fractured his wrist in early December, yet still managed to get 11 sacks. For DeMarcus, a regression to the mean could easily mean 14+ sacks in an 'average' year.

Only time will tell, but Spencer and Ware do indeed look like they could be the best 3-4 OLBs in the league this year. They will be challenged by the outstanding Steelers duo of Woodley and Harrison, and may also see competition in their own NFC East backyard from the Redskins, where Orakpo is turning into one scary dude.

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