Anthony Spencer key to Cowboys' moves

IRVING, Texas -- As the Cowboys move into offseason mode and prepare for free agency and the draft, the most important decision they will have to make revolves around Anthony Spencer.

Spencer will be an unrestricted free agent in March, free to sign elsewhere. Currently the Cowboys do not have a replacement on the roster, unless you believe Victor Butler can become an every down player.

During the season I wrote about possibly putting the franchise tag on Spencer to guarantee his services for one season, keep him hungry in terms of wanting a long-term deal.

To make that move would cost the Cowboys about $8.8 million and they would receive two first-round picks in return if a team chose to sign Spencer and the Cowboys didn’t match.

Or the Cowboys could put the transition tag on Spencer, which is expected to be in the $7.8 million range, and only have the right of first refusal if a team signed the linebacker to an offer sheet.

Here’s where either move is dicey: it would eat up a good chunk of salary-cap space and perhaps restrict some of what they could do at other positions. If they sign him to a multi-year deal, they could keep his cap figure lower. Doug Free had a cap number of $2.7 million in 2011 after receiving a $10.3 million signing bonus in 2011 in part because they put voidable years on his contract.

As I wrote about today in the Fixing the Cowboys series, the Cowboys have to upgrade their pass rush. Spencer has had five seasons to prove he can be a worthy pass rusher opposite DeMarcus Ware. At times he did. Too many other times, he didn’t.

The free-agent market doesn’t offer much hope for serious improvement, so the options appear to be sign Spencer to a long-term deal at a sensible price, put one of the tags on him or draft an outside linebacker with the No. 14 pick with Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw being everybody’s guy right now after the Tide’s win against LSU.

Let the debate begin.