The Dallas Cowboys always had interest in bringing back veteran pass rusher Anthony Spencer on a low-risk, one-year deal this offseason, and he received very little interest on the free agent market after a report during the legal tampering period that stated he had many teams interested (that report had to have been agent-driven). Spencer did visit with the rival New York Giants during the first week of free agency, but he didn’t sign anywhere until yesterday, as the Cowboys decided to bring him back on a one-year deal.
Spencer’s contract is worth a maximum value of $3.5 million, meaning that he would still be paid very little if he is able to surprise us all and re-gain his pre-injury form in 2014. Microfracture surgeries are the trickiest to come back from, and we saw that last season when tight end Jake Ballard struggled to return from a surgery that took place in early 2012. Spencer is a much more explosive athlete than Ballard, but he’s also 30.
That said, it’s a worthy “risk” for the Cowboys, because re-signing Spencer isn’t a risk at all. They still need pass-rushing help after cutting ties with DeMarcus Ware in a cap-saving move, as last year’s breakout guy George Selvie and offseason signing Jeremy Mincey are currently their staring ends. Both are quality pass rushers, but the Cowboys need more help. Spencer won’t record 11 sacks like he did in 2012, but he could erase DE as a need if he’s able to play at a credible level next year. At the very least, this ensures the Cowboys can wait to take a DE in the second round, where Demarcus Lawrence would be an excellent option (Kareem Martin is worth watching closely).
The most talented players on the Cowboys defensive line are both coming off of major knee injuries, though Henry Melton’s ACL tear isn’t nearly as severe. Melton also came on a cheap one-year deal, and he’ll be an excellent pass rusher up the middle for the Cowboys defense to replace offseason departure Jason Hatcher. Rod Marinelli could also have Aaron Donald to work with, as Donald is an elite pass-rushing presence up the middle, and this overcomes his struggles with size in the run game.
Before his injury, Spencer was an explosive pass rusher who consistently put pressure on the quarterback and also had the range to clean up tackles in run defense (95 of them in 2012 and consistently had over 60 in the three years prior to his big ’12 season). He was so valuable that the Cowboys franchised him, so his upside is 75% of that, which is still definitely worth trying to get. I mean, the Cowboys can cut him whenever they want, and they don’t have to pay him much if he does pan out. It’s a win-win for both sides, and the Cowboys know that they don’t have to expect anything out of Spencer. Any sack he gives them is a bonus on this kind of a deal, and it makes sense for them to add a talented pass rusher on a team that needs one. Will he be a productive pass rusher? Nobody should count on that, but it’s worth keeping him around to see if he can bounce back at some point next season. He was always a better 3-4 OLB than a 4-3 DE, but he was still successful at DE earlier in his career due to his skill-set and strong play against the run.
This signing doesn’t really have a significant impact on the Cowboys draft strategy, but it confirms the belief in my mind that the Cowboys will draft a defensive end after the first round. Anthony Barr probably won’t be there at 16, Kony Ealy doesn’t look like the best option for them there, and the Cowboys can wait to take a guy like Lawrence or Martin while getting Donald or a safety to upgrade elsewhere on defense. Spencer can help them avoid feeling the need to reach for a DE, but his re-signing is basically one that is about keeping a talented player around in the hopes that he will bring some level of production post-injury. And if not, the Cowboys are basically back where they started again but at no cost.