Dallas Cowboys second-year defensive end Kyle Wilber doesn't have much to display on his NFL resume. Following his rookie year in 2012, the former defender from Wake Forest has four tackles with one assisted tackle.
But would you believe that he could be one reason why Pro Bowl outside linebacker Anthony Spencer has yet to sign a long-term contract extension with Dallas?
I'm not saying that Wilber is the main reason, but rather that he is likely a partial reason.
Spencer was slapped with the franchise tag for the second consecutive season in March. It's odd that Spencer and his agent, Jordan Woy, have been so cooperative with this decision—there's numerous athletes that have all but cried because they were franchised even once.
Further, Spencer is actually franchised as a linebacker, the position he played last year and prior, even though he moves to defensive end this season along with Wilber. Linebackers are cheaper to franchise than premier defensive ends.
The primary reason the Cowboys have elected to hold off on forking over a ton of money to Spencer is likely the fact that he's switching positions just shy of turning 30 next January. Players don't generally keep getting better beyond this age, and it's not like Spencer has ever led the team in sacks.
A secondary reason has to be the presence of Wilber.
Let's compare the dimensions of these two players:
Spencer: 6'3", 250 lbs.
Wilber: 6'4", 255 lbs.
Measurements aren't everything, but it's important to consider that not long ago it was hoped that Wilber would be ready to push for a starting job at linebacker in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's new 4-3 alignment.
The facts state that Spencer and Wilber are very similar players, both having wracked up impressive stats in college that are highlighted primarily by tackles behind the line of scrimmage. While Spencer moved from defensive end to outside linebacker upon leaving Purdue in 2007, Wilber did something similar as Wake Forest transitioned from the 4-3 to the 3-4 for his final season in 2011.
Now, both of these players head back to where they first gained recognition in the college ranks—defensive end. Still, it's been much more recent that Wilber played end than Spencer.
Since Wilber has bulked up a few pounds for this significant move, he puts himself in position to potentially be a better fit at end moving forward. This is not to suggest that Wilber is better than Spencer right now, but it's quite possible that he will be sooner than we might think.
Dallas needs to be very careful how they manage the salary cap moving forward. Holding off on a long-term extension for Spencer proves that the franchise is well aware of this fact. There's no doubt that Wilber will be much less expensive in the coming years—and much younger—than Spencer will be no matter how you slice it. This may not matter at all if Spencer hits double-digit sacks for the second time in his career in 2013. Dallas would definitely have to think things over if this is how things go.
But Wilber gives the franchise the option that it didn't have with quarterback Tony Romo, for example. Romo held all of the cards, as he was heading for unrestricted free agency following next season, and owner and General Manager Jerry Jones had no intention of getting into an auction for Romo's services moving forward. Also, it's not like Jones had another quarterback that he felt could pick up where Romo left off.
But Jones has leverage concerning Spencer, for sure.
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware is still the top pass-rusher on the Dallas defense, sometimes even when he's not completely healthy. Ware is locked up for years to come as well.
In searching for the long term answer at the other end position, the Cowboys know they have Spencer for at least one more season. This allows the Cowboys to simply wait and watch while gaining a much better idea of how effective Spencer will be up on the line. It's also worth noting that Spencer is younger than Ware as well—Spencer isn't over-the-hill, even by football standards. He has been among the most consistent players on a defense that has been quite underwhelming over the last few seasons.
Still, it's good that Dallas has a younger player in Wilber that might be a gem in the near future. This benefit could potentially save a whole lot of money in the coming seasons, and while we don't know just yet, Wilber could possibly be a better football player to help take pressure off of Ware, as his career will begin to wind down in the next few seasons.
Dallas seems pretty committed to utilizing smaller ends in Kiffin's scheme, an idea that could work, but also one that could backfire. The best possible comparison we can make to the Cowboys defense moving forward is the defenses fielded by Indianapolis during most of former quarterback Peyton Manning's tenure with the Colts.
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis formed one of the better defensive end tandems in the NFL, yet, size was certainly not a strength for the Colts. I am not taking anything at all away from Freeney, but I would argue that Manning was the best defensive player for the Colts for many years just based on the number of points he put on the scoreboard just about every week—I believe in the idea that the best defense is often a great offense, provided that that offense always does what it should.
At the same time, the Colts defense never really scared anybody, and it was generally ran on at will.
The Cowboys seem to be leaning in a similar direction, but the good news is that the ends, in general, are all bigger than the two previously mentioned Colts defenders. Dallas is not looking much like Kiffin's great defenses in Tampa Bay over a decade ago.
Keep an eye on Wilber. He could be the new version of Victor Butler, former Dallas outside linebacker that was never going to beat out Ware or Spencer, but a guy who made some plays coming off the bench in passing situations.
If Wilber ends up creating more confidence than Butler did, we may very well be watching Spencer playing elsewhere in 2014.
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