When the Cowboys extended the franchise tag to outside linebacker Anthony Spencer in April, a lot of fans were shocked with the move. Spencer, a player who has never recorded more than six sacks in a season, is widely viewed as an average-at-best pass rusher.
The truth is that there are a lot of misconceptions about Spencer. While he is by no means one of the league’s elite pass-rushing outside linebackers, he does a really good job of what the Cowboys ask him to do. No defense is loaded with DeMarcus Ware-caliber players, and Spencer is really an underrated piece of the ‘Boys’ defensive puzzle.
Before delving into the numbers that many people use to define Spencer—his pass-rushing stats—let’s take a look at his ability to stop the run. Over the past three seasons, I’ve tracked Spencer as racking up 54 tackles per season—a rate that would rank him as the top 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. Spencer has actually never ranked worse than second in the league in tackles among 3-4 outside linebackers during that time (no, not every team runs a 3-4 defense, but there are still 16 of them in the NFL—meaning 32 starters at his position).
Nonetheless, Spencer will continue to be judged by his sack totals. Another year of six sacks isn’t going to cut it for Cowboys fans, but I think there’s good reason to believe Spencer will post a career-high in sacks in 2012.
One reason is that Spencer could end up rushing the passer more often in Rob Ryan’s revised defense.
Although it might seem like Spencer is always trying to sack the quarterback, he has actually dropped into coverage on 27.5 percent of pass players since 2009—a rate more than twice that of Ware. With Ryan vowing to tone down the extravagant looks this year (which will likely include a lot of zone blitzes in which Spencer would drop into coverage), there’s a good chance Spencer will receive more snaps to rush the passer.
The primary reason you’ll see Spencer record more sacks in 2012, however, is that he has actually been reaching the quarterback pretty often over the past few years, but simply hasn’t been able to bring him down. While some might chalk that up to a lack of athleticism, I think Spencer has just been unlucky.
I spent some time at Pro Football Focus tracking the relationship between quarterback pressures (how often a defender reaches the quarterback) and sacks, and almost all pass rushers tend to post around 25 percent as many sacks as pressures. Even Ware, perhaps the league’s top pass-rushing threat, has been right around that 25 percent mark over his career.
Over the last three seasons, Spencer’s sacks have added up to just 20.7 percent of his total pressures. In other words, Spencer has been unlucky with sacks. Even if he gets to the quarterback at the same rate in 2012, chances are you’ll see his sacks increase.
Taking a look at his pressure totals from the past three years (which actually rank him among the NFL’s top 10 outside linebackers), I think 40 pressures is a solid projection for Spencer. As a comparison, he totaled 35 pressures in 2011.
If Spencer can hit even the league-average sack rate of 25 percent, that would give him 10 sacks on the season. For a player who drops into coverage often and isn’t the defense’s primary pass-rushing threat, I think that’s a pretty solid number.
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