- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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So if you happen to be going back through earlier posts and you stumble on this one from this morning, I'd ask that you just read the very first line and not the rest of it. Because even though it appeared to make no sense for the Dallas Cowboys to designate Anthony Spencer as their franchise player for the second year in a row, the Dallas Cowboys have decided to do just that. Spencer's agent, Jordan Woy, tweeted the news about two hours before the 4 p.m. ET franchise-tag deadline and wrote also, "We will work on a long-term deal."
Now, because of the franchise-tag rules in the new CBA, the Cowboys must pay Spencer at least 120 percent of his 2012 salary if he plays the 2013 as their franchise player. Since last year's tag was $8.865 million, that means Spencer's franchise tag number for this year is $10.638 million, which is a ton of money to spend on one player given the Cowboys' cap problems. (If they tagged him again next year, they'd have to pay him 144 percent of his 2013, so at least $15.319 million.) Here are some of my thoughts on this odd reversal by the Cowboys:
1. They must like their chances of getting a long-term deal done this offseason with Spencer. It had been assumed he wanted to hit the market and cash in on his career season, but the decision to franchise him indicates to me the Cowboys and Woy must have had some encouraging discussions. If they didn't think it was possible to sign Spencer long-term, the Cowboys with this move would just be putting off a problem and making it worse. And while that wouldn't necessarily be out of character for them, the cap crunch is too obvious for even the most stubborn of owner/GMs to ignore. I would not be surprised if a deal got done to reduce Spencer's cap number for 2013.
2. They must be getting close to a contract extension for quarterback Tony Romo. After all of the restructuring work they did last week to get under the cap, tagging Spencer puts the Cowboys right back at or over it again. While there's other restructuring they can do, the best way for them to get significant 2013 cap relief is still to extend Romo and reduce his 2013 cap number in the process. Since they seemed last week as though they'd decided not to franchise Spencer and then they reversed course today, I have to believe they have some sense now of what Romo's 2013 cap number is going to be. That likely means they've made progress on Romo's extension, which I believe has been a foregone conclusion for some time.
3. They're prioritizing the defensive front. Spencer will move from outside linebacker to defensive end in the Cowboys' 4-3 defensive alignment under new coordinator Monte Kiffin, rushing the passer from the opposite side of the line from DeMarcus Ware and keeping Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff inside as defensive tackles. That looks like a very good pass-rushing line, as long as Ware and Ratliff can hold up physically and Spencer rushes the passer the way he did in 2012. Those are big "ifs," but the Cowboys appear to have decided they'd rather go cheap on the back end than the front. Which brings us to...
4. They need to address safety. Big time. The move that immediately preceded the Spencer news was the release of safety Gerald Sensabaugh -- a move that saves $1.4 million in cap room and leaves an opening at the back of the defense. The Sensabaugh cut, to me, says that they like Barry Church as the safety who can play the single-high position when Kiffin's scheme calls for it and that they still have plans for 2012 fourth-round pick Matt Johnson. The problems there are that Church is recovering from an Achilles injury and hadn't proven himself as a starter for very long before that happened, and that Johnson was an overdraft at pick 135 last year and missed his rookie season with a hamstring injury. That sounds like two pretty big question marks to me for a defensive scheme that asks a lot of its safeties. Now, the draft is very deep at safety this year, and there are good options on the free-agent market, so it's reasonable to argue that they'll have an easier time replacing Sensabaugh than they would have had finding a 4-3 defensive end to replace Spencer. But there's little doubt now where the Cowboys' biggest defensive need lies.
All in all, I can't say I like the move. It smacks of Jerry Jones' and the Cowboys' persistent inability to let go before it's too late. I feel the same way about Jones' stubborn refusal to part ways with Ratliff, as a matter of fact. But this is all easy for me to say, since I'm not the one who'd have to put together a new defensive line if I made those moves. In the end, it appears as though the Cowboys decided they didn't want to try to do that this offseason.