I should first note that I really like Bob Sturm’s work. He knows football, and as a writer, he’s thoughtful and provocative, but without the hyperbole. For example, I really thought he did an excellent job on this piece from back in January about the the Cowboys’ lack of talent from rosters spots 11 through 53.
Having said that, I couldn’t disagree more about his take on using the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer. On the header of Sturm’s blog, he has a quote from Billy Beane that says “Hope is not a strategy.” His post on Spencer is built around a similar principle, which is that you can’t just replace an above average player with an unnamed “anybody.” I happen to agree both with the quote, and his general principle on the thinking that “anybody” won’t necessarily be an upgrade over Spencer. I do, however, vehemently disagree with his assessment that Spencer is an “above average” starter.
To begin, I hate the premise of who we’re judging Spencer against. Sturm’s take:
He is the 2nd OLB in a 3-4 defense and therefore should be compared to those in that same category. To compare him to other #1′s like Brian Orakpo, Tamba Hali, or Cameron Wake is not practical. That is DeMarcus Ware’s job. He matches up against the other guy, and let’s see how that works. Let’s look at the “2nd Best” in terms of sack totals that outperformed Spencer of the 3-4s in the NFL in 2011:
Wait… So why are we judging Spencer against the 2nd best OLB on each team? When determining the franchise tag numbers for OLB’s (or any other position, for that matter), does the NFL distinguish between the average of the top 5 salaries of every “best OLB on his team” in the league, and then come up with a separate number for every “2nd best OLB on his team?” If that were the case, and the franchise tag number for such a designation were… say… $3-4 million… then OK, I might be on board with that premise. But because DeMarcus Ware happens to also play for the Cowboys, we get to lower the benchmark for Spencer as a player? I’m failing to find the logic in that.
Sturm goes on to note all the “2nd best OLB’s” that had more sacks than Spencer:
Player, Team Sacks Tackles Kerrigan, Wash 9 40 Harrison, Pitt 9 38 Taylor, Mia 7 11 Spencer, Dal 6 53
That is your entire list of OLBs in 3-4 defenses (11 teams in NFL ran true 3-4s in 2011) that had more productive sack seasons than Anthony Spencer did in 2011. So, if you can get Ryan Kerrigan in here to replace Spencer, I would do that (of course, he is under contract in Washington for 4 more seasons). Jason Taylor is strictly a pass rusher and James Harrison is usually Pittsburgh’s #1 but had a banged up season (LaMarr Woodley had 10 sacks). However, the 3-4s in San Francisco, Kansas City, Houston, San Diego, Green Bay, Arizona, and New York all had 2nd LBs that were either at Spencer’s 6 or well below.
Obviously, this is not an apples to apples comparison. Some have dominant defensive lines (Arizona, San Francisco) and some have ensemble casts that use a strength in numbers attack.
But, the idea that a warm body can outperform every other 2nd LB in the scheme with the exception of those 3 teams seems worth noting.
Personally, I think the much more fair comparison would be to evaluate Spencer against the other OLB’s in the NFL that typically play on the left side, as Spencer does, which also happens to be the spot where you might typically find the “2nd best OLB.” Instead, let’s look at each of the players from the (11) 3-4 teams identified by Sturm, and individually determine who you’d rather have playing for you. Here’s your menu:
I count 6 players I’d clearly rather have playing for me over Spencer:
- LaMarr Woodley – In the 3 years prior to the one listed above, Woodley had 10, 13.5, and 11.5 sacks. No-brainer.
- Clay Matthews – Down year statistically for Matthews last year, but I think we can all agree this is a no-brainer as well.
- Shaun Phillips – Another guy with a down year statistically last year, but his body of work is far more accomplished than Spencer’s. In the 5 years prior to this last one (when he became a full-time starter), he has averaged a little over 9 sacks per season. Spencer’s career high is 6.
- Connor Barwin – Missed almost all of 2010, came back in 2011 (his 2nd full year in the league) with a vengeance. 11.5 sacks.
- Ryan Kerrigan – Already noted above by Sturm.
- Justin Houston – Last 5 games with K.C. last year in his rookie season: 24 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 FF. Give me the promising 23 year old over Spencer, please.
I count 4 examples where Spencer is the better option:
- Jason Taylor – He retired.
- Clark Haggans – Marginal starter, and 35 years old.
- Ahmad Brooks – Brooks hasn’t even started for most of his career (same number of seasons played as Spencer), and he has only 1.5 fewer sacks. Sturm notes that Brooks is a free agent, and the 49ers are “happy to replace him.” While I agree he’s a very replaceable player, I sure as hell would rather have Brooks playing for me on say… a one year deal worth $2 mil than Spencer at $9 mil. Still, I’ll give the edge here to Spencer.
- Jamaal Westerman – I’ll be honest. I barely recognize the name.
Add in the 3-4 OLB’s that play the right side, and it gets really ugly:
I count 10 players from 9 teams I’d clearly rather have playing for me over Spencer:
- DeMarcus Ware – Obviously.
- Aldon Smith – Obviously.
- Tamba Hali – Obviously.
- James Harrison – Obviously.
- Brian Orakpo – Obviously.
- Cameron Wake – Obviously.
- Mario Williams – Obviously.
- Brooks Reed – Started when Williams was lost for the season after Week 5. Matched Spencer’s career high in sack totals, and added 3.5 more in the playoffs. Give me the young kid.
- Sam Acho – Acho did all of his damage in 11 games, after Joey Porter was lost for the season. Impressive numbers for the rookie.
- Calvin Pace – Tough call here, but I’ll take Pace’s body of work over Spencer’s, although I don’t like that he’s 31 years old.
I count 2 examples where Spencer is the better option:
- Antwan Barnes – Big numbers in 2011, but no production in his career otherwise. I’d be wary of him being a one-year wonder.
- Erik Walden – Not a terrible player, but as Sturm noted, the Packers are probably comfortable just letting him walk.
Including Spencer, we’ve identified 23 OLB’s from 11 teams identified by Sturm that play in a true 3-4. You may disagree with a player here or there, but I’d have Spencer ranked 17th among that group in terms of “What player would I rather have?”
In fairness, Sturm does note that he doesn’t think Spencer is irreplaceable:
Now, I do not say all of this to say that he has been a great pick, or a suitable stud, or even someone who is not replaceable. But as I look at the draft and free agency, I do not see someone who is clearly better than him at the all-around game at his position. The only 3-4 outside linebackers that are on the market are Ahmad Brooks (a player that San Francisco is happy to replace), Eric Walden (discarded by Green Bay), and Clark Haggans (35 years old). Further, if I use pick #14 on another outside linebacker, then I cannot use that pick on a defensive lineman, defensive back, or offensive lineman – where I clearly still have holes.
So, do I take Courtney Upshaw or Melvin Ingram at #14 to fill a hole I just made? I don’t think you make any progress letting a solid linebacker go if there is another alternative.
With that in mind, here is my proposal to keep from having to either let him walk or sign him to an extension that makes everyone uncomfortable.
I slap the franchise tag on him. The tag this year is $8.8 million and keeps him in a Cowboys uniform for another season so the franchise can fill their other holes and find his replacement.
Therefore, I am not married to him, and yet I do not open up another major hole. If he performs well in 2012, we talk extension. If I think he is holding me back, we move along.
There’s also Mario Williams (although he might not be the best fit, or even reasonable money-wise), and a number of athletic players available that play DE in a 4-3 that might make a smooth transition to the 3-4 as an OLB, like Cliff Avril of Detroit, or Robert Mathis. Or if you want to go the “not married to” route, how about an older player that might be game for a 1 or 2 year deal like an Andre Carter (10 sacks with the Pats in ’11)? There are options out there.
Furthermore, while Sturm notes that spending a first round pick on a Courtney Upshaw or Melvin Ingram means that you can’t use that pick on other positions, the same can be said in terms of free agency if you pay Spencer $9 million. What I mean by that is… If you give Spencer $9 million, that’s money you can’t spend to fill a hole or two elsewhere, and you’re giving it to a guy that doesn’t deserve anything close to that number.
But, I cannot fix this defense by subtracting a reasonable piece while adding another. That is called running in place while the clock continues to tick on the primes of Ware, Jay Ratliff, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and Miles Austin. I need to figure out which places are well below average (both defensive ends, cornerback) and address those while allowing players in their prime to stay in the mix so the Cowboys can try to win now.
Franchising Spencer might hurt to write that big of a check, but since this alternative is available, I think the Cowboys should strongly consider it to buy them some time in an effort to turn this thing around quickly. Cap room is available and this is a great way to put the decision off for 12 months.
I think that last sentence in the first paragraph is where we differ. While I agree that Spencer’s play has been far better in comparison to the Cowboys’ situations at CB and DE, I would still absolutely classify him as “below average” in comparison to the rest of the 3-4 OLB’s league-wide.
…and there’s just no way I could ever justify paying $9 million to a below average starter.