Anthony Spencer needs to prove worth

IRVING, Texas -- It's not fair to compare Anthony Spencer to DeMarcus Ware.

It inevitably happens, though. After all, they're a pair of first-round picks who play outside linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. One is a five-time Pro Bowler chasing his second 20-sack season; the other is a five-year veteran with 19.5 sacks in his career.

There is a better comparison for Spencer on the Cowboys' roster. It's a guy who occasionally lines up inside of him. Maybe Anthony Spencer is just an outside linebacker version of Marcus Spears.

That's not a bad thing. They aren't busts by any stretch. Spears and Spencer are solid contributors to a slightly above-average defense. Every first-round pick isn't going to be a home run, especially in the 20s. These guys are adequate, more like singles.

"I don't think there's a lot of outside linebackers better than Anthony Spencer," Spears said. "There's a lot of them out there that can play, but I think if you took a list of the top 15 guys, he would definitely be in there. To say you're in the top 15 of anything in the NFL, that's pretty solid, because that's the best the world's got to offer.

"I think what he brings to our team is a very important role. What role are you playing and are you doing it effectively? We've had no complaints."

The Cowboys will have to soon determine how much a solid outside linebacker is worth to them. Spencer's contract expires after this season, which he acknowledges was a source of offseason motivation but insists is far from his mind with five games remaining in the regular season and the Cowboys in first place of the NFC East.

"I don't think about that at all," Spencer said. "My family thinks about it more than anything. They try to talk to me about it, but whatever is going to happen is going to happen. The only thing I can control is the way I'm playing."

Spencer is coming off his most impressive performance of the season in the Thanksgiving win over the Miami Dolphins. He established season highs with eight tackles and three tackles for losses. He played his best in a critical situation, getting a stop behind the line of scrimmage, batting a pass down after getting pressure and flushing Miami quarterback Matt Moore from the pocket to force a difficult throw on three consecutive plays to key the Cowboys holding the Dolphins to a field goal in a late goal-to-go series.

"That's the Spencer we know," Ware said.

That's the Spencer the Cowboys wish they'd see more often. The frustrating thing about Spencer -- other than the fact LaMarr Woodley went 20 picks later to the Pittsburgh Steelers and has been a far more productive 3-4 outside linebacker -- is that he's flashed the ability to be much more than a solid player.

There wasn't a more dominant player on the Dallas defense, including Ware, down the stretch of the 2009 season. Spencer had six sacks in the final six games -- and two more in two playoff games -- while excelling as a run defender while the Cowboys claimed the division crown.

If you believe defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, another stretch like that is coming for Spencer.

"Ah, man, this guy's getting better every week," Ryan said recently. "He's really stepping into his own, I think. I know the guy is improving every day. He works his ass off and this guy is really going to be special. I think he can get better, and he is."

If Spencer finishes strong, it would certainly increase the Cowboys' odds of claiming another NFC East crown and doing some damage in the playoffs.

But would it make the Dallas front office's decision about Spencer's future any easier?

If the Cowboys let Spencer go, they'd have a big hole to fill. They evidently don't see backup Victor Butler as a potential starter, based on the bit role they give the fourth-year veteran.

Spencer isn't going to come cheap. Spears didn't, cashing in with a five-year, $19.2 million contract this summer, and there's a significantly higher premium on outside linebackers than defensive ends in a 3-4.

Take Calvin Pace, for example. He had never had more than 6.5 sacks in a season when the New York Jets gave him a six-year, $42 million deal in 2008, with more than half the money guaranteed.

Can the Cowboys stomach giving that kind of money to a player who (hopefully) has had two outstanding half-seasons in an otherwise average career? Would they rather drastically overpay for one year and delay that decision by putting the franchise tag on Spencer?

It might not be his primary motivation, but the former first-round pick has five more games plus the playoffs to influence the answers to those questions. It's time to prove he's much better than adequate.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.