This is the 30th in a series of scouting reports on key players who are expected to become free agents March 13, unless they are re-signed or franchised before then.
News: At age 28, Cowboys OLB Anthony Spencer is in the prime of his career and should attract attention from the increasing number of teams running 3-4 defenses in the NFL. He has shown a strong ability to dislodge the football (10 forced fumbles, including four in 2011, in five NFL seasons) and is considered one of the best run-defending players at his position. The problem is that he has not produced nearly enough sacks — especially not compared to bookend OLB DeMarcus Ware. But the Cowboys still could place the franchise tag on him, as they have no full-time options on the roster to replace him.
Notes: A first-round pick in 2007 as a college end at Purdue, Spencer was tabbed to be the Cowboys' edge rusher as an outside linebacker opposite Ware in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense. Although he never has had more than six sacks in any season, he has missed only four games in his career (all in 2008). Spencer was at his best in 2009, when he was a tremendous run stopper, tied his career high with six sacks, established a career best with 67 tackles, knocked down seven passes, had one interception and forced two fumbles. Last season, Spencer had 66 tackles and six sacks.
Positives: Spencer is a strong-leveraged, stack-and-shed outside linebacker who can play in a rush (three-point) stance or standing up. He can drop in coverage, mark tight ends and backs, is athletic and he moves well laterally. Spencer has good arm length, natural strength and leverage. He can set the edge against the run and often funnels tackles inside to ILBs Sean Lee and Bradie James.
Negatives: Spencer never has been a great finisher in the backfield with limited pass-rush moves and countermoves. He gives good but not consistently great effort. He can get washed up by bigger tackles and will struggle to sustain good pad level. Spencer is not a big enough playmaker at a position that warrants it.
Risk factor: The Cowboys are weighing the pros and cons of whether to place the tag on Spencer, which would cost them $8.8 million for one season. Is he worth that, considering he is a good but hardly great player? That's the debate. There has been talk they also could allow him to test the market but work toward bringing him back, which would allow the Cowboys to get him back for a lower 2012 salary. They just don't want to overpay on a long-term deal, which the Cowboys have done perilously in the past. The market for 3-4 outside linebackers isn't all that deep, so there will be other teams interested in looking at Spencer if he is available.