Anthony Spencer is this year's Doug Free. In the weeks leading up to free agency, fans debate the club's course of action in dealing with their biggest unrestricted free agent. For those who are new to these parts, be warned: wandering into the comments section at this time of year, one might walk in on what looks like an NFL Player Agent Convention.
Not to be alarmed, however. Anyone can play General Manager for a day and toss out salary figures, draft picks, and trade offers. While it's wonderful to exchange thoughts and suggestions, all of the varying ideas can make the overall picture murky and undefined.
Nonetheless, we strive to look through the smokescreens and posturing in order to ascertain the team's true motives. Everyone has an opinion, and yet everyone wants to know. Just how much is Anthony Spencer worth?
$8.8 Million Dollars.This is the most that the Cowboys will potentially commit to Anthony Spencer for 2012, as this is the cost of the franchise tag option.
Note: a franchised player does not become immediately "under contract." Rather, they are receiving a form of restricted free-agent tender. Other teams are still able to negotiate a contract with the player, but the Cowboys will retain the right of first refusal. If another team successfully signs away a franchised player, the Cowboys will be reimbursed with two first-round picks.
The case for: While it's difficult to argue that Anthony Spencer should command an $8.8M salary, the case for the franchise tag is not so clear-cut. $8.8M is the level of compensation typically reserved for the elite players in the NFL. One should not forget, however, that oftentimes teams (notably our own Cowboys) get caught in contracts paying similar, or greater, amounts to aging veterans performing at average to below-average levels. The advantage to the franchise tag is that, unlike an $8 Million deal for Terence Newman, protracted well into his 30s, this high price is only for one season. No guarantees. No commitments.
Imagine you're in the market for a new vehicle. Your current lease expired, and you'll need something to drive immediately afterward. You have the option of extending your old lease, on a car you're familiar with, for a year, for $1000, or leasing a similar, but unknown, vehicle, for $900 per year, for five years. The car that you really want won't be on the market until next year. In this circumstance, the higher price tag for the short term is actually favorable (for most) when compared to the slightly lower price tag, coupled with a long-term commitment. You would best be served to pay the slightly higher price this year, and then commit to the car of your dreams the next, with no negative equity (the vehicle equivalent of salary cap penalties, or "dead money").
In the case of Spencer, the situation is somewhat similar. We know what he contributes to the team. Assuming the worst, and that his naysayers are correct, what we've seen from Spencer is his production at his absolute worst. And despite a lack of effort, taking plays off, and being utterly inadequate, Spencer has consistently been recognized as a top-tier outside linebacker: an outstanding run defender, an adequate coverage linebacker, and an average-to-above-average pass-rusher. In fact, at the conclusion of the season, Spencer was among the highest rated players on the Cowboys defense, garnering a +10.0 grade from Pro Football Focus. Currently, PFF has him ranked second (to Mario Williams) among all free-agent 3-4 edge-rushers. Prior to the 2011 season, Spencer was named the 5th best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL for the 2008-2010 seasons.
The fans that act as if Spencer is performing to the absolute minimum of his abilities (though likely believing his maximum potential is the same), couldn't possibly argue that a player's worst can get worse, can they? And if you, like Stephen Jones, Jason Garrett, Rob Ryan, and many others, believe that Anthony Spencer has some, as of yet unrealized, potential to improve, you can only appreciate the Cowboys management doing whatever it takes to keep him around.
The case against: The most obvious disadvantage to the franchise tag is the sheer size of the financial commitment. If the Cowboys, this offseason, plan to imitate the other teams in their division that did not participate in the postseason, and sign big-ticket free agents, looking for a quick fix to last season's problems, signing Spencer to such a large figure this year would certainly get in the way (although, personally, I hope they will not be this year's Eagles). The sexier targets that many fans can't help but lust after will certainly command top-tier compensation. Alternatively, should the Cowboys have a longer list of less pricey priorities, such as a veteran backup Quarterback, an experienced Center, a capable Guard, Laurent Robinson, a veteran Middle Linebacker, and other miscellaneous luxury additions, retaining Spencer for nearly $9M will restrict their options significantly.
$0 Dollars. This, of course, is the least the Cowboys will potentially pay Anthony Spencer. I feel this is necessary to indicate because other, possibly soon-to-depart, Cowboys will actually cost the Cowboys money if released.
The case for: While it is not always agreeable to see a first-round pick depart without receiving any compensation, sometimes there's no better alternative. If the Cowboys view Anthony Spencer as nothing more than a progress stopper to Victor Butler, and potentially a negative role model for younger players, getting rid of him without penalty can be seen as a significant advantage. While the number of fans that would simply say, "good riddance" appear to be in the minority, they are certainly not a silent minority. In fact, the verbal abuse leveled at Spencer and his family from disgruntled fans in North Texas and online may make this the most favorable option for Spencer himself.
The case against: As lamented above, the Cowboys have a first-round draft choice invested in Spencer. He has claimed to have no desire to leave Dallas (either a public posturing, or a sign of a thick skin), and therefore the Cowboys are fully capable of retaining Spencer throughout his most productive years, or long enough to drive up his value and demand compensation from any team desiring his services. If Spencer is indeed as valuable as the Cowboys organization and the evaluators at PFF seem to believe, watching him walk away could be the biggest disappointment of Spencer's stay in Dallas. Given the common refrain of sensationalist outlets regarding Spencer, that would be a true tragedy.
5 years, $35M. In light of recent events, this appears to be the rough market value for a proven 3-4 Edge Rusher. This is based largely on Ahmad Brooks' deal, for 6 years, $44.5M (which, if you follow the link, is largely incentive-based).
The case for: Spencer, regardless of what fans may feel, has received nothing but praise from those in the organization that actually know what his responsibilities are. The only person on the team who has publicly questioned Spencer's performance is Spencer himself, and at a time when a number of other players could have said as much (and yet, didn't). The fact that this honest self-evaluation has been used against Spencer as evidence of a player who has no desire to improve seems somewhat ironic. In fact, 2010 saw Mike Jenkins much maligned, for sloppy play and lack of effort. His injury plagued 2011 earned him redemption. Why, then, does Anthony Spencer, who has never missed time due to injuries, not receive the same redemption? Spencer has done nothing to force himself out of the Cowboys' locker room.
As Ahmad Brooks' (who has, in all honesty, been far less productive than Spencer) deal shows, large contracts can be constructed that are fair for both sides. In each of the final 5 years of Brooks' contract, he stands to lose $2.5M for failing to meet expected sack totals. A similar deal, with appropriate escalators and de-escalators, would be more than fair. Keeping Spencer into his early 30s would also ensure a proven veteran at OLB while Ware's eventual replacement grows into his role. Retaining Spencer for an extended period does not preclude the Cowboys from selecting a pass-rusher in the draft. In fact, Victor Butler has shown the Cowboys' continued ability to utilize pass-rushers from outside the starting lineup. Indeed, with Ware being a few years older than Spencer, it would be wise to look for his replacement sooner than Spencer's. Arguing that you ought to draft help for Ware in the twilight of his career is akin to giving Romo a new version of the Yuglies for each of the final two years of his contract. Ware is more than satisfied with Spencer's contributions. It would not be surprising to find him frustrated if forced to play across from a rookie while striving towards his first Super Bowl ring.
The case against: Some may argue that Jones' and Ryan's acclaim of Spencer may be a mere posturing technique. It is certainly possible, if not probable, that the Cowboys wish to start a bidding war for Spencer, in hopes of luring other teams into pursuing him, leaving other free agents available for their own needs. Additionally, the Cowboys may believe that a certain free agent or draft target will present an immediate upgrade to Spencer. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that Rob Ryan is seeking a prospect with a quicker first step or a more explosive rushing technique when selecting his next outside linebacker. A final possibility is that the front office or coaching staff believes Spencer has the potential to suffer a significant drop-off in the next few seasons. While not a complete inhibitor, such a concern would certainly append question marks to any significant demand for guaranteed money.
In any case, Jones and Spencer's agent are scheduled to meet at some point in the near future, presumably to discuss a long-term deal proposal. The eventual conclusion of this conversation should carry substantial weight in the Cowboys future plans for this offseason. Fans should be aware that the Cowboys have displayed serious intent when discussing Spencer's retention. In fact, recent comments by Jones, as well as last year's courting of JJ Watt, seem to suggest the Cowboys believe many of their pass-rushing woes have resulted from poor Defensive End play. Jones' statement, in particular, roughly translates to "we haven't been using Spencer as a pass rusher, but as an edge-setter. If he were only a pass rusher, and someone else could set the edge, Spencer could get more sacks without taking away from Ware's opportunities."
What do you think? What is Anthony Spencer worth?