Now that free agency and the draft are pretty much in the rear-view mirror, we'll start looking ahead to how the 53-man roster might shake out, and what the depth chart will be. One position that was in flux in the early offseason was the outside linebacker position opposite super-stud DeMarcus Ware. Technically it's the strong-side outside linebacker position, althouhg I hesitate to apply that distinction since Rob Ryan likes to move guys around on a regualr basis. So I'm just going with the guy opposite Ware.
That position has been filled by Anthony Spencer, and there has been no shortage of opinion about how well he's filled that role. Because the Cowboys moved up to draft Spencer in the first round of the 2007 draft, there's been a lot of pressure on him to produce big numbers. And that's where things get murky. Are sacks the right measure for Spencer? Is it how well he plays the run? A combination of the two? Everybody seems to have an opinion.
After the 2011 season ended, Spencer became a free agent. The Cowboys were in a bind about what they wanted to do and eventually settled on the compromise position between letting him go and signing him to a long-term contract. That compromise was the franchise tag. Even that move split the Cowboys fanbase, continuing the trend of Spencer being one of the most divisive figures among Cowboys Nation. Everybody seemed to have an opinion on that move, too.
There's one opinion that trumps them all, though, and that's the one espoused by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Recently, Ryan gave his take on Spencer as we head into the 2012 season. The article contains this nugget about Spencer:
When you look at the numbers, Spencer finished with just six sacks but had 31 quarterback pressures, second to Ware's 41, and his four forced fumbles led the team.
With that in mind, Ryan was asked if Spencer did the job they wanted out him in 2011.
"Yes, he did. Yeah, he did," Ryan said. "I know I listen to all them radio shows on the way home and when they’re not dog-cussing me, they’re dog-cussing him. The bottom line is: He’s a damn good football player. What we asked him do, he did a great job with."
And about those sack totals? Ryan addresses that, too.
"So if we send him more this year, that will be great," Ryan said. "I know everybody just looks at the bottom line on sacks or wins, and I don’t blame them. But as a coach, you appreciate a guy like Anthony Spencer because he does the right thing, and he plays hard. He forces fumbles. He still rushes the passer. He gets in the move. I think he’s going to have a great year."
So Spencer, with his franchise tag and the support of the defensive coordinator looks safe to be a starter in 2012. But that doesn't mean Dallas isn't looking towards the future. In the fourth round of this year's draft, they selected a player who could be Spencer's eventual replacement. Kyle Wilber, out of Wake Forest, is already accustomed to playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Unlike many guys who were strictly defensive ends in college and were converted to the position (like Spencer), Wilber already has a feel for how to play it.
Early on, Wilber is getting good reviews from those who watched the rookie mini-camp.
"I thought he was pretty impressive out here [on Friday]. The way he moves around, his quickness, his recognition. And the guy is smart. I think he'll be a pleasant surprise."
"He's a smart kid. He plays hard. He knows how to cover, which is a hard thing for an outside linebacker," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "He's going to be a lot further advanced than most rookies are. The kid's got a lot of talent."
Position coach Matt Eberflus:
Linebacker Kyle Wilber demonstrated the "motor" coaches rave about during Saturday morning's workout.
"He's a hard-playing demon," said linebackers coach Matt Eberflus, intentionally using the term to describe the former Wake Forest Demon Deacon. "That's what he is. He showed that in this practice. He's stronger at the point than we thought he was."
"One of the things we talked about with Tyrone Crawford is his motor; it's the same thing with [Wilber]. It showed up. He plays from the snap through the whistle, he plays physically, he's a non-stop type guy. He showed up a lot both as a run defender and as a pass defender: on special teams. It's really one of the things we liked about him as much as anything."
Now, let's not go overboard on Wilber. I can't even count how many times we've read praise for a new player in the early summer and even into training camp, only to see him flame out once the real thing comes around. So all of this praise should be treated with caution, because you never know what will happen. But for now, Wilber seems to be one of the most talked about guys coming out of the first rookie mini-camp.
If nothing else, he seems like a no-doubter to get work on special teams this year if he makes the 53-man roster. The question for the Cowboys coaching staff, for Anthony Spencer, and for the Cowboys fanbase, is just how much Wilber shows as a 3-4 linebacker. Right now, Spencer is only on a one-year deal, unless the Cowboys work out something long-term. It may be they wait to see how much Wilber progresses before they make that decision.