The Dallas Cowboys will know very soon what kind of offseason looms ahead following Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
With only two games remaining on the 2012 regular season schedule, the Cowboys could have a number of scenarios facing them once the offseason kicks off—and when exactly does that happen anyway?
Dallas is in the thick of the NFC East race and it is hard to answer a number of questions moving forward.
Both of those scenarios above would likely result in differing strategies moving forward for owner and general manager Jerry Jones.
But one big question looms regardless of how Dallas ends up in 2012.
Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer easily ranks as the Cowboy’s most critical unrestricted free agent heading into next season. Based on the kind of impact the sixth-year veteran is making now, Spencer is pretty much the first order of business once the season is done.
Jones has just two options that each carry lots of weight. I do not know if either is wrong.
Spencer either stays at a hefty premium for likely another four years or he is allowed to walk to another team and play elsewhere for more money.
Like I said, either scenario sets things in motion as well as creates opportunities and also limitations.
Spencer was chosen 26th overall in the 2007 NFL draft and it is hard to say that he has been a disappointment. He led the nation as a college senior out of Purdue with 26.5 tackles for a loss and looked like the perfect fit to replace an aging Greg Ellis.
Except Spencer was not a replacement for Ellis.
See, Ellis’ actual replacement was outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Problem is that Ware got to Dallas a few years earlier.
By the time Spencer secured the starting outside linebacker spot opposite Ware, he was already a third year pro and seemed to be ready to rock and roll.
And he was.
Spencer was not drafted to generate 20 sacks per season, although he’s certainly a much better pass rusher than many people realize.
Almost a year ago, some made the case that Dallas would be well served to start preparing a contingency plan in case Spencer ends up leaving. I was a personal fan of Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who’s about to complete a solid rookie season which also includes six sacks.
This idea had some legs because Dallas obviously did not rush the passer particularly well in 2011 and they were even worse in 2010—except for Ware, of course.
Spencer tallied just six sacks in 2011 and only five the season before.
This is why some think that letting Spencer go and acquiring another volatile pass rushing threat to compliment Ware is the best move.
But you do not just gas up the car and go to Volatile Pass Rushers-R-Us and call it a day.
Plus, Spencer is having a career season with 10 sacks and there are still games to play. Resigning Spencer makes more sense than letting him leave and there are several reasons for this.
First of all, Spencer is a finished product that is still becoming more and more capable. As the Dallas defense is gaining better players while trimming aging veterans, Spencer is emerging as one of the key contributors on a defense that’s currently missing six starters.
Further, Dallas sack leader Ware only has a sack and half more than Spencer heading into week 16.
What if Spencer leads the Cowboys in sacks this year?
Regardless of who finishes with what with respect to sacks, Dallas will have to strongly consider the benefits of keeping Spencer, but not just because of pass rush concerns.
Retaining Spencer for the long term future means that the Cowboys have locked up the best corps of linebackers in the NFL when you consider the anticipated return of both starting inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter.
The secondary has been largely rebuilt, especially at cornerback, and leaving another gaping hole upfront with so many other positions already filled does not make too much sense.
It is a good time to also remember that Josh Brent cannot be counted on for the future. Nose guard remains a huge issue on the defensive line and a position that could be well stocked in the first round of the draft if Spencer signs an extension.
The Cowboys would be free to pursue yet other positions in the draft that are just as critical for the short term future.
I never like replacing an established free agent with a rookie because you are then forced to start over with a position of strength that likely no longer is. And if an upgrade was made, how soon does that emerge and just how much of an upgrade are we talking about?
Jones knows what he has got with Spencer and it is pretty doubtful that the Cowboys place the franchise tag on Spencer again, as they did back in March.
The Cowboys need offensive and probably defensive linemen early on in the draft. This is important because the free agent market doesn’t offer a viable replacement for Spencer. Even if there was, why not just sign Spencer?
Linebackers that bring what Spencer does to the table are not easy to come by. Spencer is poised to play his best football over the next few seasons and he should play those in Dallas. I have made this case before and this was before Spencer's breakout season.
Experience, ability, durability and upside are what every team wants in its players. The Cowboys have all of those things in Spencer and at just the right time. Other areas of the roster need to be addressed and if Dallas keeps on playing the way it has been the last month, the Cowboys will be drafting far too late in the first round to expect a pro bowl replacement for Spencer to be sitting there waiting.
Given where the Cowboys will likely be choosing in the first round of next April’s player selection meeting, keeping Spencer also keeps Dallas in position to draft the best player available as opposed to reaching for replacements that often do not work out.