Playing Tag With Spencer?

As the NFL offseason churns along, teams around the league are making plans and backup plans about how to construct their rosters.

Profiles and data about countless draftable college players are being collected, while teams are team front offices are trying to decide which free agents to try to sign — from other teams and from their own.

For the Dallas Cowboys, one free agent who has the chance to leave is outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. Selected out of Purdue with the 26th choice in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft to present a second stand-up pass-rushing threat at the opposite end of the line of scrimmage from All-World linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

Spencer's contract is up, and the team has a decision to make. He has been good over his five NFL seasons, averaging just over 53 tackles and just over four quarterback sacks per season. He has been good enough that opposing offenses can not ignore him, but hardly the kind of force the Cowboys sought when they drafted him, the kind of player who would allow Ware to enjoy — and subsequently embarrass — one-on-one blocking every now and then.

Spencer's rookie contract paid him a total of nearly $7.5 million over five seasons; many feel that his next contract could approach that figure on an annual basis.

According to NFL sources, the Cowboys have almost $13 million under the salary cap, and will have more if some high-priced veterans are sent packing, and there aren't many who think owner Jerry Jones will suddenly abandon his willingness to spend.

So the question is, what should the team do about Spencer? Signing him to a long-term (five- or six-year) deal likely would cost at least $6 million per year, and maybe $7 million annually, if not more. If Jones decides that's too rich a deal for a linebacker who has been good but not great, the Cowboys could designate Spencer as their Franchise Player.

By definition, teams can apply the Franchise tag on impending one unrestricted free agent per year as a way of preventing those players from reaching the open market. The designation binds the player to the team for a year as long as certain contractual stipulations are met.

One of the is that any Franchised player must make the average of the top five salaries of players at his position, and that's where the Cowboys might balk.

According to NFL sources, Oakland's Kamerion Wimbley is expected to earn the highest annual salary in 2012: $11 million. The remained of the predicted top five are David Harris of the New York Jets ($9.9 million), Miami's Karlos Dansby ($8.8 million), Chicago's Brian Urlacher ($7.5 million) and Jacksonville's Paul Posluszny ($6.5 million). The average of those five is nearly $8.5 million per year. Will the Cowboys go that high for Spencer?

They might, but while they would like him back, they'd rather lock him up with a longer deal at a lower annual rate. Ware is due to make $4.5 million next year, tying him with Cleveland's Chris Gocong for 16th among NFL linebackers. Sure, Ware's seven-year, $79 million contract averages out to more than the $8.8 million Spencer would receive with the Franchise tag, but could Jones really justify paying Spencer nearly twice what Ware makes, even for a single season?

Spencer is a good player. He's useful as a pass rusher, and is a stout run defender. If he does not sign an extension with the Cowboys, he will have multiple suitors. But Dallas is right to be hesitant about naming Spencer their Franchise Player. His contract would eat up more than half of the team's space under the salary cap, and that is too much money to spend on a player who, at best, will contend with Sean Lee for the label of the team's second-best linebacker.

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