How the Dallas Cowboys Can Survive Without Anthony Spencer

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 24, 2013

The Dallas Cowboys surprised a lot of people when they decided to shell out $10.6 million in franchise-tag money in order to keep Anthony Spencer around this season. But that's how much the team valued Spencer after the pass-rushing stud put together a career year in 2012. 

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, it looks as though that money will go down the drain. 

Spencer's balky left knee, operated on in late July, isn't responding to treatment, which is why he's been limited to just 38 snaps in one appearance this season. And now he's headed to injured reserve without a sack.

According his agent, he'll need season-ending surgery:

This could mean that Spencer's time in Dallas has expired, which would be a shame considering that he was arguably the team's defensive MVP last season. 

DeMarcus Ware is still Batman, but Spencer is/was one hell of a Robin. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded the 29-year-old former first-round pick as the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league last season. 

Spencer, who always had a knack for creating pressure consistently, not only became a better finisher with a career-high 11 sacks last season, but he flashed his versatility as a top-notch run-defender. He has moved to end now in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme, and with Jay Ratliff already out, they really could have used a multifaceted complementary edge-rusher like that. 

But, the Dallas defense is used to being less than 100 percent. Ratliff, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Barry Church all missed large portions of the 2012 season, and Football Outsiders concluded that only two other NFL defenses were hit harder by injuries than the Cowboys.

Ware is still dominant and is currently tied for fourth in the NFL with four sacks. That shouldn't change, even though it certainly won't help his cause that opposing offenses might not have to account for Spencer anymore. 

If Spencer is merely the first domino to fall in an injury-prone defense that will be ravaged again this season, the Cowboys won't stand a chance. But if Lee, Carter, Ware, Church and the bulk of their fellow key components can stay healthy, the Dallas defense should survive. 

It helps that Jason Hatcher has been tearing it up. In his first year as a three-technique defensive tackle on Rod Marinelli's four-man line, Hatcher has been producing like a poor man's Warren Sapp. The 31-year-old already has three sacks in three games and is rated by PFF as the third-best defensive tackle in the league. 

Ratliff will also be eligible to return in a few weeks, which could bolster the line in a big way. 

Those guys will likely help make up for what Dallas loses by shutting Spencer down, but his true replacement might also be good enough to lessen the blow. Nobody knew who George Selvie was two months ago, but the guy's been wreaking havoc. 

Three weeks into the season, Selvie ranks ninth among NFL 4-3 defensive ends with a PFF pass-rushing productivity rate of 12.4. He's already recorded 15 total pressures, which is just two behind Ware. It's early, but on a per-snap basis, Selvie has actually been slightly more productive as a pass-rusher this season than Ware was last season.

So, the loss of Spencer on its own won't likely cost the Cowboys any games. It's not ideal, but everybody has to deal with injuries, and based on the scares Dallas has endured with Tony Romo's ribs, Dez Bryant's ankle and Miles Austin's hamstring this season, they might even still consider themselves lucky.