News broke yesterday that the Cowboys' Anthony Spencer had signed his tender, guaranteeing him an $8.8M salary for 2012, and allowing him to attend off-season workouts with the team without fear of injury-without-security (or whatever it is that millionaires concern themselves with).
An apparent majority of Cowboys fans were looking forward to the possibility of waving goodbye to Spencer this offseason. For now, it appears they'll have to wait until 2013.
In theory, this decision doesn't necessarily impact the Cowboys' plans for the fast-approaching draft. One would assume that, as the Cowboys franchised Spencer and have not offered any form of long-term contract, they expected him to sign his tender.
There is the possibility, however, that the Cowboys would have taken an outside linebacker high in the draft and subsequently rescinded Spencer's franchise designation. Was this the plan? What might the plan be now?
More after the jump...Rob Ryan, and virtually anyone knowledgeable about defensive football, maintains that the key to a 3-4 is the linebacking corps. The linebackers are the highest paid group on the Cowboys' defense, and their play has been the strength of the defensive unit - with a few, now departing, exceptions in Keith Brooking and Bradie James.
Anthony Spencer, according to ProFootballFocus, Rob Ryan, and Jerry Jones, has been a part of that strength. It is incredibly uncommon for a 3-4 outside linebacker to come into the league and make an impact comparable to what Spencer offers now. Even if the 14th overall pick were used on an outside linebacker who immediately replaced Spencer, the drop-off in play would likely be noticeable.
In the second year (2013), however, a draft gem might develop into a player who could make Spencer irrelevant. It is for this reason that I believe that the Cowboys are not offering Spencer a long-term deal. There is a likelihood that the Cowboys will draft someone who projects to outside linebacker. In that case, they would like to see how he plays in his rookie season, in spot duty, and evaluate based on this information whether or not he will be a suitable replacement for Spencer in the future.
This is the same process they've been going through with Victor Butler, whose deficiencies are apparently what forced the Cowboys to franchise Spencer in the first place. An Andre Branch or Bruce Irvin type of selection might be what it takes to finally unseat Spencer. It appears unlikely that Victor Butler will ever move past his role as a situational pass-rusher.
So, should we prepare to say goodbye to Spencer in 2013? It's almost impossible to say. Spencer will never be DeMarcus Ware. The team will need to actively search for its next DeMarcus Ware over the next few seasons, as Ware's age eventually impacts his game. When they believe they've found this pass-rushing prodigy, they may elect to play him across from Ware, and allow Spencer to move on. I seriously doubt, however, that the transition would work as imagined, with the young pass-rusher honing his skills on the strong side, while DeMarcus continues to man the weak.
If you recall, a couple of years ago Ware was viewed as the most complete outside linebacker in the league. This may still be the case, but PFF has noted that Ware has, over time, focused his game on pass-rushing, allowing other aspects to drop off. Spencer doesn't have that luxury. He must be adept in pass-rushing, zone coverage, man coverage and run support. In theory, Ware would be more capable of taking over this role than any young pass-rusher, as Ware would have the more complete game. It's possible that Spencer's replacement could be Ware, with a one-dimensional player taking over the one-dimensional role Ware had been filling.
You can think of it this way: Ware is a master of everything, and Spencer is more of a journeyman. Ware is assigned to work as an electrician (pass-rusher), while Spencer is a local handy man (all-purpose OLB). If you were to bring on a young electrician with no other skills, wouldn't it make sense to move the master-of-all to handy man, and let the electrician do his job?
Conversely, the development of Bruce Carter and the (potential) drafting of Mark Barron could solidify the middle of the field to the point that we could comfortably employ two full-time electricians...er, pass-rushers, and let the ILBs and safeties take care of the other tasks. In this case, Spencer's versatility (and Ware's, for that matter), would be considerably devalued, as the team would be running a 5-2 front (for some reason, this intrigues me). As the 5-2 appears to hold little value beyond high school football, it remains to be seen whether or not this strategy would hold up in the NFL. Those that advocate replacing Spencer with a pure pass-rusher, however, are asking for just that.
If you don't believe in conspiracy theories, though, perhaps there's nothing to read into. Spencer signed his tender, and there is no implication for the future. But what fun is that?