As soon as the NFL season ends, players scatter and fans attempt to get interested in playoff games that don't involve their favorite team. But, for the coaches and front office of the Dallas Cowboys, chances are very good that they are locked in a room right now with hour after hour being spent on self-scouting and analysis on what they currently have on their roster.
This will determine their path moving forward. Which players are keepers? Which players are clearly worth taking to camp next year as a competitor for a special teams job? Which players need to be released and replaced? These are all questions that you want to have answers on before the annual tradition of going to Mobile, Alabama for Senior Bowl activities on the week after the Conference Championship Games.
Part of this process is to make quick decisions on your own free agents. Chances are pretty good that if any of the pending free agents were considered to be "must haves", then an extension would already have been completed provided that the two sides had realistic ideas of a fair price.
That leads us to believe that the difficult free agency questions in front of the Dallas Cowboys may not be as difficult as they appear. The three biggest free agent issues are punter Mat McBriar, wide receiver Laurent Robinson, and of course, outside line backer Anthony Spencer. With all due respect to Martellus Bennett, Alan Ball, and Jon Kitna, most of the rest of the names on the unrestricted list seem to speak for themselves. Montrae Holland and Keith Brooking might both get 1-year offers, but there is no hurry on 10 of the 13 names on the list.
Here are the 3 that give you pause:
McBriar is considered to be one of the best punters in the business, but with his injury issue right now that will require time to heal, he may not quite see the bidding he dreamed of. Odds are pretty good that the Cowboys continue their long relationship with this elite punter, provided his nerve issues in his foot resolve in a timely fashion.
Robinson has put himself in this position by playing exceptional football from the time he arrived at Valley Ranch. Somehow, he had a grasp for the nuance of the offense that Dez Bryant still seems to seek. Not only that, but he routinely found the end zone. His 11 Touchdowns trailed only 3 players in the league, with Chris Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson, and Jordy Nelson as the only players to exceed his end zone trips. Nelson accepted a home-town discount with the Packers in October for $13 million over 3 years, and perhaps given they were both born 11 days apart in May of 1985 and both had breakout 2011s, that would be a rather fair projection for what Robinson will be seeking.
Of course, the Cowboys might counter by pointing out Nelson far exceeded his production in terms of receptions, yardage, and body-of-work. Earlier this year, Nelson finished 2nd in Super Bowl MVP voting while Robinson was being discarded at the end of camp by the San Diego Chargers. Further, it might be considered reckless to pay a 3rd WR decent money given that you have already sunk so much money into that position and given that there are so many other holes to consider. But, if I am the Cowboys, I really need to hold on to Robinson and would rush to get his signature on a contract along those lines. They paid Patrick Crayton a 4-year, $14 million deal in December of 2007, and have been looking for a 3rd WR who could offer multiple options and coverage headaches. As another reference point, Chicago just locked up Earl Bennett (who is 24 years old) on a 5-year deal for $18.5 million and will likely be their 3rd WR. If they want this offense to remain dynamic in the air, they better figure out how to get this one done. Robinson, on the other hand, might want to drag his feet and see if someone out there is willing to pay him "starter" money and get in the $20-$25 million range for 4 or 5 years.
And then comes the big one, Anthony Spencer.
It is difficult to look at Anthony Spencer without emotion. Most Cowboys fans have been mad at him for not being DeMarcus Ware, part 2, for years. He was a non-factor as a rookie, given the starting job in 2008, had small sack totals for almost 2 seasons, went nuts in the final month of 2009, and then went back to being a rather ordinary pass rusher for the entirety of the 2010 and 2011 seasons. How ordinary? Well, in 5 seasons, 76 professional games, he has 21.5 sacks. Ware had 20 sacks in 2011 alone.
This annoys Cowboys fans, especially on days where the team can not generate a pass rush - see the Week 14 game against the Giants when Eli Manning dropped to pass 50 times and was hardly touched. It is also annoying to know that he was taken in the 1st Round after the Cowboys traded up to get him. They sent their 2nd, 3rd, and 5th round picks to get back in the 1st Round to get Spencer. They had to have him. And they got their man. So much so, that after the draft, Cowboys' brass was bragging that when they traded out in the Brady Quinn deal, they still got the guy they wanted in Spencer when they jumped back up. Everything broke right for them and nobody could believe their good fortune.
The next outside LB to go in 2007 was not selected until pick #46, when Pittsburgh grabbed Lamarr Woodley out of Michigan. When Pittsburgh targets an outside LB for the 3-4, it always give the rest of the league pause because they generally know what they are looking for. Two outside edge rushers for the 3-4 defense from the Big 10 were taken. Dallas traded up to get Spencer and Pittsburgh landed Woodley by sitting and waiting for him to fall into their laps. And forever their careers were linked by draft nerds.
Both have now played 5 seasons, and Spencer's 21.5 sacks certainly lack the punch of Woodley's 48. Neither started in 2007, so both numbers are based on 4 seasons of work. Spencer gets about 5 sacks a season, Woodley gets about 10. And on August 5th, the Steelers made sure that they didn't lose Woodley to free agency by locking him down to a 6-year, $61.5 million deal, with $22.5m up front.
Woodley spent most of 2011 banged up in one way, shape, or form. He only played 520 snaps to Spencer's 939, but again found 10 sacks while Spencer had just 6. Spencer is generally regarded as slightly better against the run, but Woodley more than makes up for it by destroying pass protection from the opposite position of James Harrison.
So, now the question the Cowboys have in front of them: Do they try to keep Anthony Spencer? It seems like an easy decision to cut him loose, but if you do, then who plays one of your most vital positions on the field? Who is opposite Ware? Could Victor Butler possibly be ready? He played just 233 snaps this season, and the question remains whether he can play in all situations or is he just a situational pass rusher?
Because if Butler is not up to the task, then you will feel compelled to make outside LB a possible target in the 1st Round to replace Spencer. And that takes away your most desirable offseason chip, Pick #14 of the 1st Round. It would be a difficult decision to dedicate your best resource to another LB when your offensive line and your secondary seem to desperately need your attention.
Spencer is steady. He is thought of as a very solid starter in the NFL. But, he is not thought of as a star edge rusher, which is what every team is trying to assemble. Pittsburgh has 2, but they are the exception. Green Bay has nobody of note opposite Clay Matthews and they still can play in February. Should the Cowboys play it safe and try to get Spencer done for half of Woodley's deal (a total package in roughly the $30 million range for 4 seasons)?
Indications are they they would not. There have been no substantive discussions between the two parties at this point in time.
But, it seems rather likely that Spencer will get many phone calls in March when he hits free agency from a team that wants a 28-year old who has been a starter in this league for a long time to nail down their spot.
Every decision leads to many more as you try to figure out how to solve this puzzle.