Free-agent linebacker Anthony Spencer
With the Dallas Cowboys having switched back to the 4-3 alignment that helped cement the franchise's place in history, questions remain regarding the future of the team's most visible free agent.
Anthony Spencer was drafted out of Purdue in 2007. Chosen 26th overall, Spencer was supposed to be the complement to DeMarcus Ware at outside linebacker—and by complement, I mean a threatening pass rusher.
Spencer's statistics have never measured up to expectations, mainly amongst fans, and for this reason many would like to see him go. This is true even on the heels of his first Pro Bowl selection in 2012.
The ex-Boilermaker enjoyed a career season last year as he finally hit double-digits in sacks and maintained his steady play against the run. Spencer tallied 11 sacks and finished second on the team in that category.
Now, some are skeptical that Spencer only turned it up a notch because it was a contract year. There is probably some truth to that, because money talks and you know what walks.
But Spencer needs to do the latter and not because he is a flake or a disappointment. Rather, the six-year veteran simply doesn't fit moving forward for other reasons.
Spencer's 29th birthday was just over a month ago. While not exactly over-the-hill, even by football standards, he isn't exactly a ''spring-chipper'' either. Chances are his best years are behind him and this has to be a consideration for the Cowboys.
Another issue is the cost involved in keeping Spencer. Since he'll be among the most visible outside linebackers available on the free-agent market in the coming weeks, it really isn't likely that Dallas is going to pony up millions of dollars in order to keep him in Big D. Slapping him with the franchise-tag in 2013 will cost over $10 million, and this won't happen, either.
And the biggest issue faced by owner and general manager Jerry Jones is where Spencer will play in the new 4-3 defensive alignment being installed by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Should Dallas re-sign Anthony Spencer to a long-term contract?
Spencer made a name for himself as a right defensive end at Purdue. His 26.5 tackles for a loss as a senior are precisely what landed him in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft—and yes, the Boilermakers ran a similar 4-3 scheme.
But the very position that Spencer last played right end in college will be manned by future Hall of Fame pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware. Enough said about that I believe.
So the question then becomes this: Is Spencer big enough to play the strong side, where he has never played on the defensive line, at only 250 pounds?
I don't believe so.
Dallas is not brimming with money to spend in free agency and this will be true even after the expected extension for quarterback Tony Romo. Even if other players, like Miles Austin and Doug Free, also agree to restructuring their bloated and ridiculous contracts, money is going to be very tight. I see the Cowboys looking to bolster other positions with whatever they can come up with financially.
This is not to say that free agency offers better options at defensive end, but the 2013 NFL draft in April certainly will.
Players such as Ezekiel Ansah of BYU and Margus Hunt of SMU offer a much better fit opposite Ware at defensive end. Prospects like these two players are bigger, younger and possess the overall skill set that is likely to be coveted by Kiffin, who has never employed defensive ends as small as Spencer.
Moving forward, Spencer fits as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment finally trashed by the Cowboys after eight seasons of mediocrity, and that is putting it mildly, over the past three seasons.
Dallas has to get serious about defense again and new personnel is going to be required, especially on the defensive line. This is why we are not likely to see more cornerbacks, or even a safety, chosen on the first day of the draft.
The Cowboys have invested first-day selections on corners like Mike Jenkins in 2008 and Morris Claiborne just last year, and the results have been rather invisible in the win column.
If you can't stop the run well, as Dallas never did in the 3-4, then forget having dominant success rushing the passer, especially when you have a guy like Ware on the field. It's too easy to simply double-team Ware and go heavy on rushing attempts in order to neutralize Ware´s impact and also keep the Cowboys' potent passing attack off the field.
And this has worked for years due to head coach Jason Garrett's inability to adjust his personnel and philosophy on offense and also his ignorance of defensive lineman Jay Ratliff´s poor positioning at nose guard, of all places.
Money and personnel have to change in Dallas, and I have no doubt that they will.
Even if Spencer was a consideration to remain at linebacker, he would instantly be considered a bit large, and possibly too old, to play there either. If the price tag for this experiment wasn't so high, retaining Spencer might not be a bad idea.
But since Ware isn't going anywhere, and neither is Ratliff, Dallas has to anticipate the extending of Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. The Cowboys cannot do this while also keeping a guy who just doesn't fit the scheme or the plans as Dallas continues it's ''uncomfortable offseason''.
Jones met with Spencer and his agent during the NFL Scouting Combine last weekend, and it sure doesn't sound like this is the direction the Cowboys will go.