The Anthony Spencer Challenge

"I am a true believer, Anthony Spencer will have seven or more sacks in 2011." This was the statement I made during the offseason and much to the delight of one BTB member, I was wrong. Almost Anthony, as many Cowboys fans have come to call him, managed only six sacks this season. Now, does that mean he is a terrible strong side linebacker?

I still believe Anthony Spencer is better than many other left outside linebackers in the league. Yes, I still have issues with his consistency. In some games he seems downright dominant, yet in others he makes mistakes and seems average. Yes, there were better first round picks the Cowboys could have made when they drafted Spencer, but was that his fault?

Believe it or not, after Sean Lee, Spencer is our best linebacker in coverage and Ryan often used him in that capacity. He is also one of the best Cowboys linebackers at stopping the run. Sure, that may be more of an indictment on how poor the Cowboys inside linebacker depth truly is, but it does reveal the true versatility of Anthony Spencer.

And yet, you will still see many Cowboys fans excited at the proposition of the Cowboys losing Spencer as he tests the free agent market this year. Some outright calling him terrible. And yet, whenever I ask a simple question it seems no one wishes to respond.

If Anthony Spencer is so terrible, how many LOLB in the league are better?

Well, seeing no one has ever answered that question for me I decided to do the leg work so we can compare.

It seems many fans are still confused about Spencer's role on this defense. Everyone would love to have two DeMarcus Wares rushing the passer, but too often forget that Spencer does not rush the passer as often as Ware. In fact, this season he rushed the passer less than in other years and still managed to tie his career best in sacks. Spencer is often tasked with containment duties, making sure that if the play is a run that he does not allow the back to get around the edge. You will also often see him covering backs and tight ends in the flat. In fact, in Ryan's defense you would even find Spencer standing up in front of the slot receiver. In most 3-4 defenses the left outside linebacker does not get to tee off as a pass rusher as often as the right outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end.

Let's first begin with taking a look at how Anthony Spencer did compared to other Cowboys defenders. He was fourth on the team in total tackles, second in sacks, and led the team in forced fumbles. Not too shabby. Only Sean Lee and the two safeties had more total tackles than Spencer, but if the Cowboys secondary wasn't so putrid, it would likely mean that Spencer would be second in total tackles and likely would have accrued a few more sacks. But let's get on to the comparison with other LOLB around the league.

All stats from NFL.com except QB Hits and TFL which are from Advanced NFL stats

Player Team Total Tkls Sacks Fum Frd QB Hit TFL
A. Spencer DAL 66 6 4 15 12
R. Kerrigan WAS 63 7.5 4 12 9
J. Houston KC 56 5.5 1 9 10
C. Matthews GB 50 6 3 22 8
A. Brooks SF 49 7 1 13 12
C. Haggans ARI 46 3 1 9 5
B. Reed HOU 45 6 0 11 7
S. Phillips SD 42 3.5 0 6 8
C. Kelsay BUF 41 5 2 6 3
L. Woodley PIT 39 9 0 13 10
J. Westerman NYJ 32 3.5 1 7 6
J. Taylor MIA 18 7 1 15 5

So, how many LOLB in 3-4 defenses around the league are better than Anthony Spencer? The answer is not many. Clay Matthews is actually the best OLB on his team and plays more like a ROLB though they play him on the strong side. Perhaps we should be comparing Ware and Matthews, and if that is the case Anthony Spencer is far better than anyone else the Packers line up at OLB. Even so, Spencer had as many sacks as Clay Matthews, more tackles, and forced more fumbles.

The only player that seem he could become far better, and should likely be considered one of the best LOLB in the league, is Ryan Kerrigan. The Redskins seem to have gotten great value with that draft pick. While Lamaar Woodley had quite a few sacks more than Spencer, it is clear he is primarily used as a pass rusher since he has almost half as many tackles as Spencer, and no forced fumbles.

So I ask again, is Anthony Spencer really as bad as people think? How many LOLB in the league are better?

Anthony Spencer led all LOLB in tackles, forced fumbles, and tackles for a loss. He was Top 5 in sacks and tied for second in QB hits.

Perhaps Cowboys fans should not be so quick to cheer the loss of Anthony Spencer from this defense. This team needs to upgrade other positions far more than LOLB if Spencer is re-signed. And yes, I am still a true believer.

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