Dallas Cowboys: What Does Franchise Tag For Anthony Spencer Really Mean?

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Dallas Cowboys: What Does Franchise Tag For Anthony Spencer Really Mean?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The decision by Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones to slap the franchise tag on linebacker Anthony Spencer for a second consecutive year raised some eyebrows, including my own.

But this move makes sense for a few reasons, and these include the possibility of even trading Spencer at some point during the offseason. While Dallas could expect as many as two first round draft choices in any trade for Spencer, that certainly does not mean that they couldn't settle for something less in trying to fill numerous holes left gaping over the past several seasons. 

Getting something in return for Spencer is better than getting nothing, as would have been the case without the tag and a long-term contract prior to March 12.

Also important to remember is the fact that Spencer is tagged as a linebacker, not a defensive end. This may seem cosmetic in the grand scheme of things, but there is considerable financial considerations at work here.

When a player is franchised they have to be designated as such at the position they played the season prior. Spencer, having obviously played outside linebacker during his entire professional career, is to be paid as a linebacker, not a defensive end.

In other words, the current collective bargaining agreement does not care about what scheme a team runs from one year to the next.

While it is suggested that Spencer will play defensive end in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's new 4-3 alignment, I'm not ready to buy that idea just yet.

Why?

Dallas defenisve coordinator Monte Kiffin: Courtesy of americanpress.com

Spencer is a little light to play this position for three downs, week in and week out. It's not like he's microscopic, but he doesn't fit the mold of a 4-3 end in the NFL. Further, Spencer hasn't played the position since college. 

Some say that DeMarcus Ware is also a bit small to be making this transition from outside edge-rusher to the defensive line, but Ware is an exception and he wouldn't be the first to play this position at a very high level despite his perceived lack of bulk. Ware is also a future Hall of Fame candidate and his sack totals are unquestioned.

The issue here is having two ends that weigh less than 260 pounds, something not commonly seen in the NFL.

Consider these familiar defensive end combinations, and their dimensions, from Dallas Cowboys history:

 

Harvey Martin: 6'5'', 260

Ed ''Too Tall'' Jones: 6'9'', 271

 

Charles Haley: 6'5'', 255

Tony Tolbert: 6'6'', 265

 

DeMarcus Ware: 6'4'', 254

Anthony Spencer: 6'3'', 250

 

As you can see, the current bookends for the Cowboys are pretty small, and that's also taking into account that over the past 20-30 years. The players have gotten significantly bigger and stronger than they were during the 1970s through the 1990s.

Let's examine the same position combo used by Kiffin when Tampa Bay was beating up on NFL offenses 10 years ago:

 

Simeon Rice: 6'5'', 268

Greg Spires: 6'1'', 265

 

Doug Benc/Getty Images
Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice

Again, weight and, obviously, talent was not lacking from the Buccaneers defensive line back then, and I haven't even touched on the tackles that were on the inside, as this is a different discussion.

The fact that the Cowboys were undersized in the heart of their 3-4 scheme from start to finish was ultimately their downfall, and precisely why the franchise is turning to it's defensive roots once again.

Does it make sense to start off so small once again with a new scheme?

I don't think so.

Don't be surprised if Spencer, assuming he plays in Dallas in 2013, actually plays different roles in Kiffin's defense.

For example, the New York Giants have shown over the past several seasons that you really can't have too many good pass rushers. Despite already having Pro Bowl sack artists in Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, New York proceeded to select Mathias Kiwanuka out of Boston College in the 2006 NFL Draft.

At the time, Kiwanuka was a clear defensive end prospect who was thought to be a little lean for the defensive line—he has gotten heavier since—and the Giants agreed, moving him to linebacker instead, which is where he still plays today.

The year after drafting Kiwanuka, the Giants took that army of pass rushers into Phoenix, Arizona and completely ruined a historic undefeated season for quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII—the Giants did it again four years later against New England in XLVI, and for the same reasons.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
New York Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka

Now, Kiwanuka is not the same kind of player as Spencer, at least physically. But they both rush the passer very well and are also stout against the run.

It sure looks like the place for Spencer is at linebacker—not the defensive line—and the Cowboys know he's a pretty good linebacker.

Franchising Spencer means a 2013 salary of just over $10.5 million, so there is little doubt that the Cowboys have a plan of some kind. This can be scary when considering that Jones is the one signing off on it, but I'm going to assume that Kiffin has an idea here and I think that part is the secret—at least for right now.

Make no mistake: NFL teams, including the Cowboys, are not showing their cards to anybody at this point in time. In fact, whatever they say publicly can almost be assumed to mean the exact opposite.

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