The Curious Case of Anthony Spencer

Anthony Spencer is going to become an unrestricted free agent in March, and the Cowboys have to make the decision to sign him to a new contract or not.

A contract that keeps him away from another team is going to be pricey, possibly four or five years at seven million a year. That’s a lot of money for one guy, you need to make sure he’s well worth it. Personally I don’t see any way that the Cowboys sign Spencer to a new deal–but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be on the roster in 2012. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Cowboys will place the franchise tag on Spencer.

The franchise tag allows a team to sign a player to a one year contract, which allows a team to keep the player from being on the open market but not be forced into a long term deal. The benefit to the player is that the guaranteed money under the franchise tag is on the top end of the market. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the League office and the Player’s Union updated the terms of the franchise tag. The franchise tag now takes the highest paid player at the position (in this case, Outside Linebacker) in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons. Then it takes the average of those salaries, and awards that salary to the player being franchised. This equates out to around 8 million dollars for Anthony Spencer if he’s franchised this year.

Why It’s a Good Idea

We do have a lot of needs on the team, especially on defense. We’re not going to be able to address every single one in this offseason, so why manufacture a deficiency that we don’t need to? He had six sacks last season, tying a career high–those would have to be replaced by either a rookie or a backup. We need a cornerback, safety, and (at least) defensive tackle/end, and using a draft pick on an Outside Linebacker means that pick isn’t being used on one of those guys. If the team doesn’t want to agree to a long-term deal with Spencer he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2013, and we can draft a replacement at that point–when we have presumably already addressed a few needs through the 2012 draft. Even though we can’t upgrade everywhere in one year, the Cowboys still need to be competitive each year.

Why It’s a Bad Idea

You can only franchise one player per year, and only tag him one time while he plays for you. He gets the average of the top salaries for the last five years at that position–I know I already said that, but it bears repeating. That’s a ton of money. Placing the tag on Spencer ignores the logic of the tag. You don’t franchise a guy because you don’t want to replace him, you franchise him because you can’t replace him.

Is Anthony Spencer irreplaceable? His main role is to keep defenses from using double teams to negate DeMarcus Ware’s rush (#94 doesn’t get as many double teams as people assume, but that’s another post), and basically form a pincer effect of a pass rush attacking the offensive line from both sides. He hasn’t produced. Six sacks is his career high. That’s one every 10 quarters. Let’s say we franchise him, and he has an (by his standards) All Pro year and gets eight sacks–that’s one million dollars per sack. Not even putting Eli Manning on the turf is worth that much money. Many would argue that Jason Hatcher is more effective and less expensive (about 1.5m in 2012). At the very least, Hatcher can do what Spencer does.

Here’s my thought: This draft is extremely important. One that can change the course of the organization. It can end up as one that we look back on producing Super Bowl rings in years to come. True we don’t want to add holes to the laundry list that we already have, but we could save money for another player (keeping Spencer keeps you from having a shot at both Laurent Robinson and Carl Nicks) that upgrades a position we need. Losing Spencer isn’t going to leave a void that can’t be filled. We should upgrade everywhere we can. We’re not going to have an all pro opposite Ware this season regardless of what we do with Spencer. We should make salary and personnel positions with a mindset of having the best possible players at the highest number of positions.

Keeping Spencer might give us a better ROLB than his replacement, but that’s not guaranteed. What is certain is that his return will hurt another unit’s improvement–most likely the Offensive Line–and that trade off is unacceptable.

Mock Draft Review

With a month and a half until the NFL Draft, anyone with a high speed internet connection and a laptop will be producing mock drafts. Todd McShay, one of the few accurate draft analysts out there is out with his Mock Draft 2.0. The whole thing is worth a read, but we only care about who he thinks Jerry Jones will draft.

The main thing to remember when reading mock drafts, or any draft publication is that one unexpected pick or trade will affect the entire course of the draft. After spending an hour running his picks through a proprietary computer program and examining every possibility–the Cowboys have no shot at Morris Claiborne from LSU.

He has Dallas taking Janoris Jenkins, a cornerback from Northern Alabama. I’m not sure how much I can legally publish of ESPN’s analysis of Jenkins (nor do I remember how to use the Chicago method of citing sources), but here is the overview: He was given an overall rating of 93, and his cover skills specifically grade as “exceptional”, which even your mother in law can understand makes him a player the secondary desperately needs. McShay’s team specifically points out that Jenkins is “a quick-twitched athlete who reminds us a bit of a young Asante Samuel. Displays a natural back pedal and makes an easy flip of hips to turn and run with receivers down field. Balanced and feet are constantly underneath him allowing him to make a quick transition out of breaks. Explodes out of his pedal and closes quickly on the ball in front of him. Shows ability to mirror and maintain proper position in man coverage. Can be more aggressive with his press technique but flashes ability to jab and run with receivers when in press-man.” In other words, a player that as a rookie can put a top to Victor Cruz’s salsa dancing.

Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll see another Jenkins in the Cowboys’ secondary. You may have wondered why a player with this high of an upside went to Northern Alabama. Why didn’t any of the great SEC coaches notice his abundant talent? In fact they did, and Jenkins spent 3 years at the University of Florida putting up great numbers. The problem was that he wasn’t able to handle the benefits that went along with these successes–in 2010 he was arrested two times in 90 days for drug violations, and was arrested for a fight in 2009. Everyone’s character situations are unique and need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but if you need a rule of thumb: Getting kicked off an SEC football team when you’re that productive is a huge red flag.

Jason Garrett doesn’t like guys with character issues. He wants a team full of guys who make more news on the field than off. He did draft Dez Bryant, but that was as Offensive Coordinator and not Head Coach. Even though he was in charge of the offense, he still adhered to the chain of command with the rigidity of a military officer. If that’s what Jerry was wanting to do with that pick, he was not going to make as loud an objection as he might now. As a Head Coach that obviously has the authority to make personnel decisions, Garrett can ensure that guys that fit his idea of a Dallas Cowboy, no matter the possible talent upside.

For better or worse, I’ll be surprised if Jenkins ends up as a Cowboy. He might have the talent to make the team, but he might also have the demons to kick him off it.

Cowboys Top Personnel Needs and Their Offseason Strategy

The Cowboys have a lot of personnel situations that are less than desirable. The quickest way to go from 8-8 to a ticker tape parade is to have better players, and there are some positions that are worse off than others.

Cornerback–When describing iPhone competitors, Steve Jobs gave the media a quick litmus test to know if the product has a chance of competing with the ubiquitous smartphone: “if it includes a stylus, they blew it.” So is the Cowboys 2012 season–if they keep Terence Newman on the roster, find a new hobby until 2013. It should be a moot point, but watch how the situation develops. All signs point to Newman being free to join the Olympic hurdling team in the summer, so without even looking at the play of Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick we need to find a way to upgrade that unit.

Safety–The only people ecstatic about Gerald Sensabaugh and Abe Elam as the Dallas starting safeties are their moms. Their play wasn’t as bad as Roy Williams, but Elam’s attempts at tackling the Giants’ running backs brought back Ken Hamlin nightmares. At least one of these guys needs to be replaced, with this type of play at the back end of the defense we will have trouble going as far as we want.

Interior Offensive Line–We need a Center who knows when to snap the ball, and more dominant Guards. The Center situation is very cut and dry–find a new one. Phil Costa made for great highlights after the Redskins game, but you’re not winning with him. Kyle Kosier isn’t useless at Guard…this year, but having a young guy behind him to learn his technique gives us the best solution. The other position is more dire, and doesn’t have the luxury of a veteran in place.

Outside Linebacker–Anthony Spencer probably won’t be here in 2012, and someone needs to rush opposite of DeMarcus Ware. Spencer wasn’t a factor and never had consistent pressure so anyone will be better than him, but I don’t see his replacement currently on the roster.

Inside Linebacker–The Keith Brooking/Bradie James duo isn’t getting any younger. Sean Lee’s play makes this less of an issue, but it’s still a gaping talent hole.

Contrary to what dallascowboys.com is telling you, not all of these problems can be fixed before next season, you get better at as many positions as possible. In 2012, here’s what we do: we fix one of the Guard positions in the offseason by signing Carl Nicks in free agency. He’s the top Guard available, and is a proven commodity. We’ll have around $15-18 million in cap space, and we should use as much of that as it takes. If there’s no other notable free agent signings for Dallas besides Nicks, we were a success.

In the first round of the draft, we address another of the issues–probably either the other Guard slot or Cornerback, but a pass rushing specialist is also a possibility. I’ll publish my first mock draft wrap-up (spoiler: Todd McShay’s wrong) later this week, but I think those are the most likely positions we will upgrade. If Jason Garrett & Co. hold to this strategy, our Offensive line will be much better equipped to protect Tony Romo and open holes for DeMarco Murray, while our defense might finally be able to stop someone.

Keep this in mind: it really sucks to see the Giants win the Super Bowl, but we’re on the upswing and very possibly a few years from winning another Super Bowl of our own–and the Super Bowl is in MetLife stadium after the 2013 season.