It seems that if the Cowboys were serious about signing him long-term, they would have done so already. The fact that they haven't suggests that they are still very much open to tabling his services in exchange for draft picks.
But with the market shrinking, could such a trade still exist?
The complications involving a 29-year-old linebacker coming off of his best season, and the corresponding inflation of his perceived value, puts the Cowboys in a bit of bind.
On one hand, they are, at the very least, curious to see how a transition from linebacker to defensive end could serve his skillset.
On the other hand, entertaining the prospect of failure, in regards to that transition, could be a costly mistake. The last thing they want to do is pass on a top-rated draft prospect simply because the need at that particular position is filled, no matter how temporary.
What's absolutely clear is that paying Spencer his current demands under the franchise tag is unacceptable. The Cowboys need to either extend him, or trade him.
The latter is the best option, albeit the most complicated option. Under the tag rules, Spencer would require two first round draft picks. Thankfully, that's negotiable as no team is going to make such a sacrifice. But a late first or a combination of a second and a conditional pick isn't out of the question.
The problem is finding the right team with the right needs, which comes down to two things: salary cap and system. As much as we'd like to believe that Spencer will thrive as defensive end in a 4-3, his 11 sacks last year suggest that a 3-4 best suits his skillset. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the best 3-4 linebacker in the NFL last year.
But for the sake of hypotheticals, let's assume that limiting his responsibilities, as a 4-3 defense would, also limits his expected regression. Meaning, no matter the system he plays in, he will be every bit as good this year as he was in 2012 (otherwise known as recency bias).
That leaves us with only two hurdles: salary cap and necessity. Those two requirements alone filter out 90% of potential suitors.
For example, the Indianapolis Colts, who recently switched to a 3-4, would be a perfect match for Spencer. They had nearly $40 million in cap space going into free agency and were reportedly in a bidding war for Paul Kruger. They lost that war to the Cleveland Browns, and had the Cowboys been a little more proactive, they might have been able to snag the 24th pick in the upcoming draft. It's too late now, as the Colts have signed a number of free agents and have just enough cap left over to sign their rookies.
The New Orleans Saints would be another perfect fit. They hired Cowboys castaway Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. I have no doubt that Ryan would jump at the opportunity to employ Spencer at any cost. But like the Cowboys, the Saints have major cap problems due to back-loaded contracts. It's interesting how no one chastises them for operating under salary cap hell like they do the Cowboys. Winning the Super Bowl not only does wonders for your credit, it also distracts from the perception of bad management.
But I digress. Let's get to the teams who have manageable money.
According to overthecap.com, there are nine teams that can afford Spencer's contract as it stands. The Browns, Jaguars, Buccaneers, Bengals, Eagles, Packers, Jets and Patriots all have at least $10.9 million in cap space.
We can eliminate the Eagles on principal. There's no way Dallas brass is going to feed the enemy, unless it's a player they've lost all faith in (see Martellus Bennett).
The Jaguars have $29.6 million in free space but they're looking to get more draft picks, not fewer. They have so many needs that they'd be better off trading down and stocking up, or just drafting a quarterback No. 2 overall. The Cowboys will have to give up a lot more than Spencer to move up that high.
The Packers could be an interesting option. It's not out of line to wonder if Nick Perry is a bust and the combination of Spencer and Clay Matthews would excite any defensive coordinator. But I doubt they're ready to throw away what would essentially be two first rounders for Spencer.
If the Buccaneers are going to make a major free agency move via the draft, it's most likely going to involve Darrelle Revis. Their infatuation with him is an ongoing storyline. And even if that negotiation sours, they will have plenty of cap problems to deal with in years to come.
The Jets would be worthy suitors if they weren't the poor man's version of the Jaguars. That's right. I want you to think about that statement and take it to heart. The Jets are the poor man's version of the Jaguars: they have more needs to fill and less than half of the cap space. Yet, Cowboys fans complain about Tony Romo and how the front office has ruined this team. Allow this simple voice of reasoning: the Jets are the poor man's version of the Jaguars.
The Bengals have a great defense and a lot of cap space. Spencer would make a nice depth guy but so would any rookie. A couple of years ago this trade would have made sense. As of now, it has no merit.
That leaves us with our final options: the Patriots and the Browns.
With $11.8 million in cap room, the Patriots could sign Spencer to a long-term deal and still massage the numbers to sign their draft picks. Spencer is an ideal fit for their hybrid system, which utilizes both a 4-3 and a 3-4. They have a young defense and the veteran presence of Spencer affords them leadership and versatility. But they have historically traded into draft picks, not out of them. No matter the case, a phone call between Jerry Jones and Bill Belichick could lead to an interesting draft.
And finally, we have the Cleveland Browns. This is the trade that makes the most sense.
As mentioned, the Browns recently signed Paul Kruger to a 5 year, $41 million contract. Kruger and Spencer would be a dream for defensive coordinators and a nightmare for quarterbacks. Kruger would have to make the switch to weak-side, which just makes this deal even more enticing. What he lacks as a run-stopper he makes up for as a pass-rusher. The big question here is what becomes of Jabaal Sheard, who has led the Browns in sacks the last two years. The Browns are transitioning to a 3-4 this year and there's no telling how he will fare. Plugging in Spencer to mold him certainly wouldn't hurt.
But is Spencer worth the sixth overall pick? Probably not. The Cowboys are going to have to give up more. Fortunately, the Browns don't have a second round pick after drafting Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft last year. This provides the Cowboys with an angle.
Breaking Down The Trade
The Cowboys trade Spencer and their second round pick to the Browns for the sixth overall pick. The Browns would get Spencer and the 47th overall pick.
The Cowboys then have two first rounders and a chance to draft two of the best players available. That means drafting a right tackle and a defensive lineman. Drafting a right tackle gives them more leverage over Doug Free, forcing him to take less money or cutting him altogether.
With Spencer and Free off of the books, the Cowboys have $17 million in freed up cap space that can be rolled over into next year to help with extending players like Sean Lee and Dez Bryant.
I can't comment to the likelihood of this trade. I can only describe the necessity of it. Realistically, I think the Browns will ask for more. And I would give them more. Say, an additional pick in 2014, or even trading Spencer and the 18th overall for the 6th overall and a pick to be named later (and then trading down). The idea here is fixing the offensive line and providing some relief from the looming salary cap issues.
Spencer is the most expendable player in terms of rebuilding the weakest parts of this team. His play was outstanding in 2012 and he could have plenty more productive years ahead of him. But the Cowboys cannot afford to pay nearly $19 million to two defensive ends that have never played in a 4-3 (professionally).
The Cowboys need to get him off of the books and the best way to do that is trading him to whichever team is willing negotiate.
Justin Bonnema is a freelance writer and a featured columnist covering the NFL and fantasy football. Follow him on Twitter: @justinbonnema
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