Bill Polian: "I See Upside For Spencer In A 4-3 Scheme"

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Signing pass rushers who are coming off a career year to an extension, or signing them as free agents, is usually not a terribly good idea. In Spencer's case, the move to a 4-3 scheme further complicates things. Or does it?

Last week, former Colts, Panthers and Bills GM Bill Polian wrote an In$ider article for ESPN in which he evaluated the 2013 free agent class from a GM perspective. He had this to say about Anthony Spencer:

He played OLB in Dallas' 3-4 scheme, but I think he's more of a 4-3 end. He is an outstanding pass-rusher. As I mentioned earlier, I'm normally wary of players having good seasons in contract years, but putting him at OLB doesn't allow him to do what he does best, which is rush upfield. And I see upside for him in a 4-3 scheme.

There have been a lot of discussions about whether Spencer, who is listed at 6-3, 250 on the mothership, has the size to play the strongside DE. Bill Polian seems to think so, and it's a position Spencer has been playing in the Cowboys' nickel packages anyway. Ultimately, Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli will have to make the decision on whether to retain Spencer, and they'll have enough game tape to review as they make their decision.

But more important than Spencer's size is that Polian sees upside for Spencer in a 4-3 scheme. That is important for a couple of reasons.

1. The contract year

Polian mentions it, and conventional wisdom holds that players try harder and therefore play better in the final years of their contract. The corollary is that players exert less effort in the year after signing a multi-year contract in free agency. One problem with this line of thinking is that Spencer's initial contract year was 2011, after which the Cowboys franchised him. We did not see a noticeable spike in his performance that year. The other problem is that this contract year phenomenon has never been statistically proven for the NFL. It sounds nice and it's easy to believe, but the facts just don't support it - kind of like the Easter Bunny.

2. The defensive end coming off a big year

The facts do support this point: One of the rules of free agency (that nobody sticks to) is not to sign a defensive end coming off a big year. And the reason to be wary of DEs coming off years with high sack totals is that as a rule, statistical outliers will regress to the mean. Here's an example using the ten 4-3 DEs with the most sacks in 2011 and how their sack totals changed in 2012:

Player Team Sacks 2011 Sacks 2012 Change
Jared Allen MIN 22 12 -10
Jason Babin PHI 18 7 -11
Jason Pierre-Paul NYG 16.5 6.5 -10
Chris Long SL 13 11.5 -1.5
Julius Peppers CHI 11 11.5 +0.5
Chris Clemons SEA 11 11.5 +0.5
Trent Cole PHI 11 3 -8
Cliff Avril DET 11 9.5 -1.5
Mark Anderson NE 10 1 -9
Andre Carter NE 10 2.5 -7.5
Elvis Dumervil DEN 9.5 11 +1.5
John Abraham ATL 9.5 10 +0.5
Total 152.5 97 -55.5

Of the ten players on the list above, only Dumervil was able to improve on his sack total from the previous year by more than one sack, three players were able to improve their totals by 0.5 sacks and six saw a drop in their sack totals. Overall production from this top ten group dropped by 36%. For the six players whose sack totals dropped, production fell from 111.5 to 53 sacks, a decline by a whopping 53%.

You can do an exercise like this for almost any stat and end up with similar results. It's called regression to the mean and it occurs in almost all data sets that compare one period to another. Anthony Spencer had his statistically best year with 11.0 sacks last year at the age of 29. It is unlikely that he will repeat that feat a year later in Dallas.

3. Pay for potential, not performance.

The key heading into free agency is to find players whom you can pay for potential instead of past performance (which they are unlikely to repeat). In his six-year career in Dallas, Spencer has totaled 3, 1.5, 6, 5, 6, and 11 sacks. If this were only about statistics, you'd throw out the 11 as an obvious outlier. Very easy to do. Except that this is free agency, and in free agency, you’ll end up paying for the 11. That’s the whole point.

A valid argument can be made that DEs shouldn't be judged only on their sack totals. And this is an argument always brought forward when a player has low sack totals. But once a player has high sack totals, the players’ abilities are exclusively defined by that one magic number, especially in contract negotiations.

Everything we know says that if the Cowboys re-sign Spencer, they'll end up overpaying, and will shell out big bucks for past performance and not for future potential.

Unless.

Unless Polian is right and there really is upside for Spencer in a 4-3 scheme. But that goes beyond my abilities to quantify. What we do know is that there are a couple of recent examples that would seem to support Polian's point.

The most recent team to move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme were the Miami Dolphins, who made the switch from 2011 to 2012. The Dolphins' leading pass rusher in 2011 was 6-2, 236-pound OLB Cameron Wake, who had 8.5 sacks that year. After being moved from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 DE, Wake had a career year in 2012, recording 15 sacks, getting named to the Pro Bowl and making First-Team All-Pro. And all of that at the age of 30.

Another recent team to move from the 3-4 back to the 4-3 were the Patriots, who made the move between the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The Patriots didn't transition their OLBs to DE, opting instead to bring in two new players to play DE. One of those, Andre Carter, had spent the previous season playing OLB for the Washington Redskins, who had run a 3-4 defense in 2010, and OLB Carter recorded a mere 2.5 sacks. A year later, at the age of 31, he recorded 10 sacks for the Patriots as a DE.

But just as there are examples where the change of scheme worked out for a player, there are others where it didn't: Matt Roth played in a 3-4 scheme in 2010 Cleveland and recorded 3.5 sacks as an OLB and moved to 4-3 scheme as a DE in Jacksonville, where he also only had 3.5 sacks in 2011.

At the end of the day, it's anybody's guess how well Spencer will transition from OLB to DE, but that question will be a key question the Cowboys need to answer as they decide whether to re-sign Spencer, and more importantly, for how much.

What do you think, do you see an upside for Anthony Spencer in a 4-3 scheme?

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