After a few weeks of speculation on whether the Cowboys would slap Anthony Spencer with the franchise tag or not, it appears as though they’re finally ready to pull the trigger.
The move makes almost no sense whatsoever, for a multitude of reasons:
1) Anthony Spencer is a below average starting 3-4 OLB
Of the 11 “true 3-4 teams” in the NFL, we’ll identify the starting OLB’s. First, the players that typically play on the left side, the same side you’ll find Spencer:
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 in 2011, 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 – Kerrigan had a better season his rookie year than Spencer has had in any of his 5 years in the league.
- 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. Still, I’ll take Spencer.
- Jamaal Westerman – I’ll be honest. I barely recognize the name.
An now the guys that play the right side:
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 the Packers are probably comfortable just letting him walk.
Including Spencer, we’ve identified 23 OLB’s from 11 teams 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?” By definition, I would consider Spencer a “below average starter.”
2) $8.8 million is a lot of money
We already know that, of course, but let’s put that number in perspective:
- If the Cowboys franchise tag Anthony Spencer, he’ll be the third highest paid player on the team. Third! The only players with a higher cap number would be Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware.
- Early cap projections have the salary cap at somewhere in the ballpark of $120 million. On a team of 53 players, Anthony Spencer would be eating up 7.3% of your cap for the 2012 season.
- Take that $120 million number, divide it by 53 players, and you’re looking at an average of $2.26 million per player. Spencer would be making almost 4 times more than the average.
3) Victor Butler has outperformed Anthony Spencer in the opportunities he has gotten
Do with these numbers what you will. I want to be careful not to make the claim that Victor Butler is the better player (I think both players have their strengths and weaknesses), or that he’s even starting material, but here’s a quick comparison of Anthony Spencer and his backup over the last 3 seasons:
|Butler projected over 3004 snaps||3004||*374||46.8||11.7|
|Spencer in 3004 snaps||3004||*208||19||8|
*The tackle numbers for each player include any tackles made on special teams, which do not count as snaps. Obviously, Butler would have more of those, and thus, the tackle projections could be slightly skewed.
I’ve seen the argument made that Victor Butler has gotten the overwhelming majority of his snaps as a pass rush specialist. Not so. According to Pro Football Focus, Butler rushed the passer on just 53.7% of his snaps since he’s been in the league. On the others, he was either playing the run or dropping back in coverage.
I’ve also seen the argument that Anthony Spencer is much bigger than Victor Butler, and Butler will get run over in the run game. While playing the run be very well be a weakness for Butler, the point that he’s considerably smaller than Spencer simply isn’t true. Spencer is listed at 6’3, 257. Butler is listed at 6’2, 249. That’s a difference of 1 inch and 8 pounds.
4) If your scouting department is doing their job, you can find immediate contributors at OLB in the draft
Not in love with Victor Butler? OK, I can certainly understand that. In the 2011 draft, there were 5 players drafted in the first 4 rounds with the intent of playing OLB in a 3-4 scheme. I’m not omitting anyone here, and simply cherry-picking players that produced. This is all of them:
The success rate isn’t going to be this great every year, but it’s certainly worth noting that OLB isn’t a position like QB, WR, CB, or S, where the learning curve from the college ranks to the NFL is much more steep. The trick is… Can you pick the right guy? If you believe in your scouting department, you should feel confident that you can identify that player, especially in this year’s draft class, which is deep at OLB. If you don’t believe in your scouting department, then, well.. you’ve got much bigger problems to worry about.
5) What if you franchise tag Anthony Spencer and he finally produces for a full season in 2012?
Great! That’s the best case scenario. Finally, “Almost Anthony” will have shed the “almost” from his alliterative nickname. But here’s the rub… He’ll be a free agent again in 2013. Wanna tag him again? You can, but it’ll cost you 120% of his salary from the previous season, or $10,560,000. Now you’re opening up a whole new can of worms. Do you pay a guy $10.56 million (or perhaps even a long term mega-deal) to a player with one good full season? I guess it would depend on how good he actually was, but once again it would likely be another really tough decision.
So what are the options?
First of all, let’s examine why people think Spencer should be franchised in the first place. The logic is that the Cowboys can delay a decision on Spencer for a year, avoid opening up a new hole at OLB, while filling the holes around him with the draft and the remaining money left over under the cap. That essentially makes Anthony Spencer a “band-aid,” and a very expensive one at that. The issue that I take with that sentiment is that band-aids are available all over the place, and for a much lower cost.
For example, Andre Carter is a free agent. He had a very manageable $2.25 million contract last year in New England, and here were his numbers:
Andre Carter turns 33 years old in May. He can be had for far less than what you’d pay Anthony Spencer, and you can ride him for a year or so while you find a long term solution.
Or maybe you take a chance on Manny Lawson? After being a first round pick in 2006, he’s been a starter for the last 4 years in San Francisco and Cincinnati. Last year he played on a one year contract worth $3 million. Is he better than Spencer? I think most people would say no. But he’d come at less than half the cost, and combined with Victor Butler, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to equal Spencer’s production.
Those are just two examples. There are solutions out there, be it a veteran rental like Carter, a promotion for Butler, an under-the-radar player with some upside like Lawson, a rookie draft pick, or some sort of combination of two or more of the above. Any way you go, you’re not paying anything close to $8.8 million and you’re probably not going to lose much production.
The bottom line remains that tagging a below average 3-4 OLB at $8.8 million when you may have a capable backup in place, a deep draft class at the position, a boatload of other holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and limited cap space makes no sense whatsoever, and shows a complete lack of creativity in filling out a football roster.
You can follow Jimmy on twitter: @Jimmy_Beast.