Cowboys position series: Outside linebacker

This is the ninth installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at outside linebacker.

Players: DeMarcus Ware (signed through 2015), Anthony Spencer (unrestricted free agent), Victor Butler (signed through 2012), Alex Albright (signed through 2013)

Top free agents: Mario Williams, Houston Texans; Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys; Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco 49ers; Jarret Johnson, Baltimore Ravens; Manny Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals.

Top draft prospects: Courtney Upshaw, Alabama; Melvin Ingram, South Carolina; Chandler Jones, Syracuse; Nick Perry, USC; Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma; Zach Brown, North Carolina.

2011 review: Ware put together another Pro Bowl season, ranking second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks. You can question how many of those sacks were game-changing plays, but there’s no doubt that Ware is one of the most dominant pass-rushers of this era, if not NFL history. Spencer, on the other hand, had another average season. He was solid against the run, tying for the team lead with eight tackles for losses, but wasn’t a difference-maker as a pass-rusher again (six sacks). Butler, who had three sacks in limited playing time, shows flashes as a pass rusher but apparently hasn’t earned the coaches’ trust to play a significant role.

Offseason review: Whether to use the franchise tag on Spencer might be the most important decision the Cowboys make this offseason. That would mean paying Spencer $8.8 million in 2012. That’s too much for a non-impact player, but letting Spencer walk in free agency would create a big hole opposite Ware. Signing Spencer to a long-term contract would be rewarding mediocrity, a mistake the Cowboys would likely regret down the road, considering he’s likely to be overpaid in a weak free agency crop of outside linebackers. Even if the Cowboys use the franchise tag on Spencer, they would be wise to use an early-round draft pick to find the long-term solution at this position. If they let Spencer go, this becomes arguably the Cowboys’ biggest need in the draft.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: Maybe the position that has the most question marks. Will the Cowboys use the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer, or will they use the 14th overall selection in the draft to fill the need, or will they do both? Regardless, the position opposite Ware needs to be addressed. Too many times, Ware was a one-man show this past season. When the Cowboys needed pressure in the passing game, it fell to Ware to provide it.

The decision to potentially franchise Spencer tells me a couple of things: that the coaches and the front office like what they have in Spencer and don't like the current group of outside linebackers on the current free agent market; and they have questions about those players available in the draft. The tag wouldn't surprise me one bit because I have always believed that coaches love the known more than the unknown. As fans you might not feel that Spencer is worth the tag, but it allows the Cowboys to buy time and go with a player that has had some productive moments.

I have always liked Victor Butler and have seen a productive player when given the chance to take snaps. Why not give him a shot? Like at inside linebacker, the depth at this position has been killed by the draft or the lack of it. Alex Albright made the 53-man roster last season, and was a nice player on special teams and did see snaps during the season in some packages. However, he was on the field when the defense gave up some big plays.

The team can best fix this position through the draft with Ingram or Upshaw AND by keeping Spencer in the mix. That'd allow the Cowboys an opportunity to get that corner, guard or safety that could also make a difference.

Need meter (0-5): 4