I’ve written on Anthony Spencer quite a bit over the past year because he’s a rather interesting player. In the preseason, I showed why Spencer’s past sacks weren’t representative of his true talent, i.e. Spencer had been underachieving in terms of sack totals prior to 2012. It was easy to project Spencer for a career year, but the truth is that he actually overachieved this season. He’s not a long-term 11-sack player, and I even labeled Spencer as one of my players who might disappoint in 2013.
The truth is that Spencer is a really talented but not elite player opposite DeMarcus Ware. In terms of how often he has pressured the quarterback, the “true” Spencer is somewhere between the 11 sacks we saw in 2012 and the four sacks he averaged in his first five years in the league.
If the choice for the Cowboys is between signing Spencer to a long-term deal or letting him walk, they’re correct in not giving him the big bucks. Although Spencer was perhaps the best player on the Cowboys’ defense in 2012, you don’t build a championship team by consistently signing free agents coming off of career years. In effect, whoever gives Spencer a long-term deal in 2013—if someone does—would be paying for a double-digit sack edge-rusher but getting one who’ll give you about seven or so per year. There’s simply no value right now in terms of Spencer’s perceived market worth.
And don’t forget that Spencer isn’t getting any younger. Tomorrow is his 29th birthday (Happy Birthday Anthony!). That’s not old for the world, but Spencer is on the brink of becoming a senior citizen in the NFL. I previously researched the typical age of decline for various positions and found that most pass-rushers see a somewhat steep decline in play around age 31 and then hold almost no value by age 33. That’s not to say Spencer is sure to stop producing the minute he turns 31, but it’s probably not a smart bet to give a 29-year old pass-rusher a five-year deal when history has shown he’ll almost assuredly be in steep decline in the last two or three years of the contract. It’s simply not a smart business decision.
The other option—the smartest one, perhaps—is for the Cowboys to apply the franchise tag to Spencer again in 2013. That way, they can have their cake and eat it too. Spencer can fill in as the Cowboys’ starting strong-side defensive end, again motivated to earn a long-term deal. The ‘Boys will have to shell out a lot of cash to Spencer this year, but it’s worth it when the next guy up is probably second-year player Tyrone Crawford.
But what about those concerns that Spencer can’t play in a 4-3 defense? Well, they’re probably overblown. It’s a little unreasonable to think that a talented pass-rusher will simply become ineffective if he starts his rush from a slightly different position. Plus, I looked up the average size of Monte Kiffin’s defensive ends in Tampa Bay since 2000—6’3’’, 273 pounds. That’s only slightly larger than Spencer, and the unrestricted free agent’s thinner frame could be a positive for a team that will desperately need to upgrade their four-man rush in Kiffin’s scheme.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.