By Matthew Postins
I admit that I was a bit surprised that the Dallas Cowboys decided to put the franchise tag on linebacker Anthony Spencer for the second straight year. I assumed the Cowboys would not be able to find enough cap space to even entertain the thought of keeping him. Now it seems they might turn that franchise tag into a long-term contract. But that seems to be more his agent’s wish than the Cowboys, if you believe Jordan Woy’s tweet earlier this week.
The Cowboys could still trade Spencer, or simply keep him for one more year and let him go. But for the moment they have him pegged to start at left defensive end opposite DeMarcus Ware. While that makes perfect sense, given Spencer’s history at the position in college, does this represent a paradigm shift in the way new Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin does business?
During my time covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers I saw the type of players that Kiffin used at that left defensive end position.
The left defensive end in the Cover 2 is usually larger than the right defensive end because the left side – or the strong side – is usually more responsible for run stopping. The reason is that while the right defensive end typically chases run plays, the left defensive end faces run plays head on more often. So that player typically has to be larger and more durable.
Here’s a list of some of the players that were at left defensive end during Kiffin’s tenure in Tampa Bay – Tyoka Jackson (280 pounds), Chidi Ahanotu (283 pounds), Marcus Jones (286 pounds), Greg Spires (265 pounds) and Kevin Carter (290 pounds).
You’ll notice that Spires was the only one who comes close to Spencer’s listed weight of 257 pounds. I made the point in January when Kiffin was hired that he liked his left defensive ends larger.
So the big question is does Spencer’s size make a difference?
We’ll try to examine this in a couple of ways. First there’s overall NFL defensive ranking. Spires manned the left defensive end from 2002-07 for the Bucs. Those other players were with Tampa Bay from 1996-2001 and 2008.
With Spires the Bucs were Top 10 in total defense five times in six years, with that sixth year being a No. 21 ranking in 2006 when the Bucs were riddled with injuries much like the Cowboys were last year. With the bigger ends the Bucs were a Top 10 defense all seven years, but were never the No. 1 defense in the NFL. That happened just one time with Kiffin, in 2002, with Spires at left end. It was also the year the Bucs won the Super Bowl.
But total defense doesn’t tell you everything. The Cowboys have to get better at pressuring the passer and creating opportunities for sacks. So did size make a difference at that position in Tampa Bay?
Let’s take a look at that sack production on the left side during the same time frame.
Spires produced 26 sacks in six years.
Jackson, Ahanotu, Jones and Carter produced 35.5 sacks in seven years. Ahanotu was the only player to produce double-digit sacks on that left side, nabbing 10 in 1997.
So yes, the group of larger ends produced more total sacks. But what about a per-season average?
Spires had 4.3 sacks per season. The group of larger ends produced 5.1 sacks per season.
To these untrained eyes, that difference is negligible. We’re talking about .8 sacks per season.
Certainly you have to factor in the quality of the player at the position. You also have to factor in what’s around the player. But if history is a guide, Kiffin has shown that he can produce great defenses with different types of players at that left end position.
So that begs the question – did the Cowboys pay the right amount for the right guy or did they overpay at a position where they just needed “a guy?”
That may determine whether Spencer gets a long-term deal or not.