With Anthony Spencer Back on Board, Cowboys Defense Has a Fighting Chance

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 28, 2014

USA Today

The Dallas Cowboys have found a way to survive what could have been a disastrous offseason.

No, the cap-strapped Cowboys didn't appear to get a whole lot better on paper, but the fact that the defensive line will actually have two Pro Bowl-caliber starters to kick off the 2014 season is a testament to progress this front office has made in terms of its handling of personnel.

Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware are gone, and they'll be missed. Those two were both in the Pro Bowl in the last 16 months and were the best players on this defense in 2013.

They've been replaced by 2012 Pro Bowlers Henry Melton and Anthony Spencer, who are both younger and arguably possess higher upsides than those they'll take over for.

The key in assessing the Spencer signing, which was reported by ESPNDallas' Todd Archer this weekend, is to view him as a replacement for at least the 2013 version of Ware. Sure, the two were a tandem in 2012, but Spencer played just 38 snaps in a single appearance before being shut down for the year due to a balky knee.

Bringing him back in any fashion is a risk considering that knee, which underwent microfracture surgery in the fall. The same rule applies to Melton, who is recovering from a torn ACL.

However, that's why they're so much cheaper than Ware and Hatcher. Beggars can't be choosers, but the big advantage is that Melton is four years younger than Hatcher and Spencer is two years younger than Ware.

Melton's deal is inexpensive in 2014. According to the Dallas Morning News, it'll be no cheaper than $2.25 million, but no pricier than $5 million, based of course on incentives reached. If he proves himself this season, it becomes expensive. Otherwise, the Cowboys escape relatively unharmed from a financial standpoint.

The same applies to the contract Spencer signed. Archer suggests the one-year, prove-it deal maxes out at $3.5 million.

According to Spotrac, Hatcher and Ware are making a combined average of $16.9 million per year in Washington and Denver.

The financial gap is huge, but if Melton and Spencer can stay healthy, Dallas will look brilliant. Look at how closely the four players compare based on what they did in their last complete seasons.

Melton/Spencer vs. Hatcher/Ware: Last full seasons
SacksForced fumblesPFF grade (rank)
Melton6.0215.8 (7th)
Hatcher11.0227.3 (8th)
Spencer11.0226.6 (1st)
Ware6.0012.6 (8th)
Pro Football Focus

Spencer has been playing for a long-term deal for four years running. He shined under those circumstances in 2011 and 2012, leading to back-to-back franchise tag assignments. Last year, it was an injury that brought him down.

If he can get past that in 2014, there's no reason to think he can't emulate Ware, who was really beginning to decline in the last two years anyway.

Now, Jerry and Stephen Jones aren't stupid. They know there's a chance this strategy won't pay off, which is why they'll still likely look long and hard at defensive linemen in next week's draft. Archer notes that they've smartly avoided a "huge financial commitment that would take them out of selecting an Aaron Donald, Anthony Barr or Kony Ealy with the 16th pick in the first round."

The Cowboys are showing us that while they're willing to reload and cut ties with respected veterans, they're also unwilling to accept that the window has closed completely on the core currently in place.

That's something the fans should applaud, because tough business decisions are rarely popular but often worth it in the long run. Conservative gambles on guys like Melton and Spencer could at least keep this team in contention while weak spots on the roster are replenished.