Cowboys Tag Anthony Spencer. So ... What Now?

Elsa

The franchise tag for Anthony Spencer is just the first step in a process that could lead to a long-term contract. But there are other possibilities as well. We examine some options and wonder what the Cowboys will end up doing.

In addition to the release of Gerald Sensabaugh, the big news yesterday was about the Cowboys franchise tagging Anthony Spencer and thus likely securing his services for the 2013 season.

But that move raises more questions than it answers, especially for Spencer's future with the Cowboys. For now, as per the CBA, they've tagged him at 120% of last year's tag for linebackers ($8.865 million), which means Antony Spencer could end up playing the 2013 season for the Cowboys at a cool $10.638 million. But that's just one option of how this story could continue.

One and Done: The Cowboys could very well have used the tag to keep Spencer for one more year, but nothing beyond that. This gives them time find a suitable replacement either via players already on the roster, or by getting additional talent onto the roster.

Tag & Trade: The franchise tag does not automatically mean Spencer will play for the Cowboys in 2013. The Cowboys could do a "tag-and-trade" and move Spencer to another team. In theory, that other team would have to cough up two first-rounders for Spencer, but that's not happening. An example of such a tag-and-trade is Matt Cassel's move to the Chiefs in 2009. On February 5, 2009, the Patriots placed a franchise tender on Cassel, who was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2009 after playing out his four-year rookie contract. On February 28, 2009, the Patriots traded both Cassel and OLB Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs for the No. 34 overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Had the Cowboys let Spencer hit free agency, they would not have gotten anything in return (except the vague hope of perhaps a 4th-round compensatory pick in the 2014, but that is far from certain). A tag-and-trade, while contingent on Spencer agreeing to a deal with the new team, could net the Cowboys an immediate return this year.

Another Tag: The Cowboys also have the option of having Spencer play under the tag in 2013, and then tagging him again in 2014. Per the CBA, the Cowboys would then have to pay him 144% of his 2013 salary, another cool $15.319 million. That makes it highly unlikely that the Cowboys would exercise that option. But the numbers are important, especially for Spencer's agent, because they establish a baseline for any future contract between the Cowboys and Spencer: The 2013 and 2014 franchise numbers add up to $26 million, and that will be the amount of guaranteed money Spencer's camp will be looking for in any type of contract (we'll come back to that guaranteed money a little further down).

The contract figure Jerry Jones has in mind for Spencer "is much less than he is going to take."

New Contract: In situations like this, the player and his agent typically want a three- to four-year deal that incorporates an annual increase of about 120% from the franchise number. In Spencer's case, that would be either a 3-year deal worth $38.7 million or a 4-year deal worth $57.1 million.

By the way, this is where Spencer's designation as either a linebacker or DE comes into serious play. The franchise tag for defensive ends is $11.75 million, the tag for a linebacker is "only" $10.638 million. Using the 4-year deal example above, but basing it off DE money, leads to a 4-year, $63.1 million deal. That's a $6 million difference, and that doesn't fall under the category of "peanuts" anymore, which is why Spencer's camp is so adamant about this.

At this point, negotiations usually break down.

The Cowboys' position here is very clear: Why pay premium money for a long-term deal? The Cowboys are expecting a significant discount versus the franchise tag numbers in exchange for a long-term deal. Their idea is probably more in the range of $9 million a year for five years, with the option of releasing Spencer after three years with a minimal financial impact.

And this is where the $26 million guaranteed money could come into play: Players usually want a high signing bonus in their contracts, because that is often the only guaranteed money in a contract. Teams are notoriously hesitant about guaranteeing money, as that money has to be paid even in the event of an injury and even when the player is cut.

If we assume that the $26 million guaranteed money is a starting point for the negotiation, then there likely won't be a big signing bonus required. And a small signing bonus means less money prorated over the length of the contract, which gives the Cowboys a lot more flexibility in the later years of the contract, because they won't be burdened down by enormous cap hits in later years.

Here's how a deal between the two sides could be structured: The Cowboys offer Spencer a 5-year deal worth $50 million. That's slightly below what Spencer's camp was looking for in a 4-year deal, and also adds an extra year.

The Cowboys know they'll have to pay the guaranteed money, and they also want to take some of the cap hit out of the 2013 league year. So they offer Spencer a $7.5 million signing bonus which for cap purposes they can spread out over the life of the contract. Additionally, they guarantee the first three years of the contract for $22.5 million.

This is what that hypothetical (and simplified) contract could look like:

Base Salary Pro-rated Signing Bonus Cap Hit
2013 2.5 1.5 4
2014 10 1.5 11.5
2015 10 1.5 11.5
2016 10 1.5 11.5
2017 10 1.5 11.5
Total 42.5 7.5 50

Spencer gets a deal that pays him a guaranteed $30 million over the next three years (signing bonus plus guaranteed base salary 2013-15). Overall, that puts him in a better position than he would be with two successive tags in 2013 and 2014, even if it's going to take one extra year to get there.

The Cowboys in turn get cap relief in 2013 and secure Spencer for the long run, at an average cost of $10 million a year, which isn't bad for a (hopefully) good defensive end. They also have the option of cutting him after 2015 at minimal cost. At that point, cutting Spencer would only cost the Cowboys a $3 million cap hit (pro-rated signing bonus money from 2016 and 2017). And should they choose to retain him beyond 2015 (if he is still productive at 33 years of age), they'll have a pass rusher for what will then be a very reasonable contract number.

The Cowboys and Spencer have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal. If they don't reach an agreement by that date, Spencer automatically plays the 2013 season under the franchise tag.

If you were the Cowboys, what would you do?

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