Although there are obvious concerns surrounding free-agent defensive end Anthony Spencer, it’s a bit surprising that he’s still on the market. RotoWorld has Spencer ranked as the top remaining defensive end, even though he was originally ranked No. 17.
With inferior defensive ends signing multi-year deals around the NFL, Spencer has had trouble finding a home. He could just be holding out for a semi-lucrative deal, but his health, age and production could be major contributing factors to his current unemployment status. Let’s take a look.
The most obvious reason why Spencer is still a free agent is that teams are scared off by his knee. Spencer had season-ending microfracture knee surgery that is going to keep him out of at least some portion of 2014 training camp, according to Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas.
Jordan Woy, Spencer's representative, told David Moore at The Dallas Morning News, "Structurally he is sound. Now he is building the strength back and conditioning to get ready for the season.
“He would be very limited in OTA’s, but from what the doctors are telling us, he should be ready to go by preseason and regular season.”
There’s just a lot of uncertainty surrounding Spencer’s potential 2014 contributions because no one knows how healthy he’s going to be. Teams are scared to invest even short-term money into a player who, in a best-case scenario, is still going to miss much of training camp.
Related to Spencer’s health is his age. He’s not a young, up-and-coming, 25-year-old defensive end anymore. Already 30 years old, Spencer is at an age when many players begin to break down.
Yes, we can play the “what if he remains healthy” game all day, but the truth is that although injuries are somewhat fluky, older players (a) get injured more frequently and (b) take longer to recover from them than younger players. It’s not a foregone conclusion that Spencer will bounce back from such a serious injury.
Spencer’s age also puts him at the top looking down in terms of career trajectory. Using Pro Football Reference’s approximate value, I charted typical defensive end production by age.
As a function of a player’s personal career-best production, the average defensive end peaks at ages 25 and 26. However, pass-rushers can typically maintain a high level of production—near or above 90 percent of their previous peak—into their early 30s. That’s a pretty large window relative to other positions.
One of the reasons for that is because players tend to lose speed quickly with age, but not power or length (obviously). Although quickness is important for defensive ends, length and power are underrated components of getting to the passer. That’s a good sign for Spencer, who has never really relied on his speed for production.
If you’re looking at Spencer on the career trajectory graph, you see that most players his age are still productive. However, there’s a pretty steep drop on the horizon, and teams are fearful that—because of his injuries—Spencer is very close to hitting that point. There’s some upside to a short-term deal, but the risks are large, too.
Another thing to keep in mind about Spencer is that it’s not like he was ever a consistently high-level player in terms of getting to the quarterback. In seven NFL seasons, Spencer recorded more than six sacks just once (in 2012). Let that sink in.
Spencer brings a lot to the table in other areas, but teams pay for sacks. If you throw out 2012 as an outlier—which isn’t that hard of a pill to swallow since he averaged only 4.3 sacks in the prior five seasons—you have an aging player projected at a moderate sack total even if he stays healthy. That’s not really a recipe to break the bank.
If we’re trying to project Spencer in 2014 alone, we need to consider that his breakout 2012 year was an outlying performance. If we were to average his two best seasons in terms of sacks, we’d get 8.5; that’s really about the type of player that Spencer was in his prime.
Based on his age, Spencer would normally be good for between 90 and 95 percent of that previous peak—around eight sacks. That’s a good number for what he’s going to cost, but we also need to factor in the downside of Spencer missing camp and the risk that he contributes next to nothing if he gets injured.
With those things in mind, we could probably project Spencer’s 2014 season in terms of probabilities—say, a 75 percent chance of near eight sacks and a 25 percent chance that he tanks. That’s the risk teams are fearing.
Nonetheless, Spencer has generated at least some interest.
The Cowboys probably don’t want to see Spencer go to the Giants, especially at a bargain bin price. The truth is that the best landing spot for Spencer is back in Dallas. The Cowboys desperately need a defensive end to hold down the fort until they find their pass-rusher of the future, and Spencer has the ability to do just that.
Spencer is a risky player, but that risk is going to be more than factored in to his price tag. Think about what kind of money Spencer would command if he was in the exact same situation but was coming off of the 11-sack season he had in 2012. He wouldn’t be paid top-tier money, but he wouldn’t be far behind.
Since the Cowboys can presumably retain Spencer for a very reasonable price—a number that has his injury risk priced in—it makes sense for them to bring back their seven-year veteran on a one-year deal, capitalizing on the risk-averse nature of NFL teams in order to acquire value.