Anthony Spencer arrives at crossroads

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys Anthony Spencer is entering the most critical season of his career.

Spencer will be an unrestricted free agent in 2012 and is receiving questions about his future from all sorts of sources, like the media, friends and his family.

"My little brothers, they talk about it," Spencer said. "Everyone else, they let me know. I'm aware of it."

Spencer's training camp has been solid. Tackles and tight ends talk about how difficult he is to block in the running game. But Victor Butler's work in the passing game has those outside Valley Ranch wondering if Spencer's playing time should decrease.

If anything, Butler's ascension will come at the price of a defensive end in the sub packages, not Spencer.

The more apt comparison for Spencer is Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

The Steelers signed Woodley to a six-year extension worth $61.5 million earlier this month. They took Woodley with the 46th overall pick in 2007, 20 spots after the Cowboys took Spencer.

Woodley has had three straight seasons with at least 10 sacks playing opposite James Harrison.

Spencer's career high opposite DeMarcus Ware came in 2009 when he had six.

The last first-round pick the Cowboys let play out the final year of his contract without re-signing was Ebenezer Ekuban, their No. 1 pick in 1999. Safety Roy Williams ('02), Terence Newman ('03), Ware and Marcus Spears ('05) were retained, while the team traded '06 first-rounder Bobby Carpenter last year to the St. Louis Rams.

What to make of Spencer after 60 games and 38 starts?

"I know if you ask coaches around the league, they have issues every week with our outside linebackers," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "It's a simple thing to say, 'There's a great rusher over there, turn the whole line and tight ends over there,' but two guys make it difficult for either offensive tackles or right ends or backs to block them. It becomes a problem at different times. At times Spence has been more productive than at other times. Some of that has to do with the attention he's gotten opposite of DeMarcus."

Is he the dominant player who closed the 2009 season playing as well as any outside linebacker in football, including Ware? He had four sacks in the final three regular-season games and two more in the playoffs.

He filled the stat sheet the way a grocer fills the aisle with bread.

Or is he a tease of potential unfulfilled? Although he was credited with a career-high 105 tackles by the coaches, his sack, tackle-for-loss, pressure, pass breakup and interception totals went down in 2010.

He was not bad; he was just … there.

"There was some stuff that I was doing that I just got lazy with," Spencer said. "With the run game and my pass rush, I was feeling like I was doing the same thing [as in 2009], but I wasn't."

It wasn't until after the season that he noticed his angle in his alignment was off. That led to a small difference in where he placed his hands as a pass-rusher or how he could take on a blocker in the running game.

"That's the biggest frustration," Spencer said. "The smallest things can make or break you in a play or a game. It's always the smallest measures that change a lot of stuff."

Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus knew about Spencer from afar while in Cleveland. He usually had one run-stopper and one pass-rusher, but with Ware and Spencer he believes he has close to interchangeable parts.

"This is going to be really nice, moving those guys around and keeping them guessing, who's rushing, who's dropping, are both rushing?" Eberflus said. "It's going to be fun dealing with both of those guys."

Eberflus said the focus on Spencer is a "couple of tweaks here or there."

"And he's going to turn it loose," Eberflus said.

For the Cowboys to look more like the 2009 defense that finished second in the NFL in scoring (15.6 points per game), Spencer has to become a factor. He has to be the 2009 Spencer every game, every play.

Until he does, there will be questions from everybody.

"There's always room to grow," Spencer said. "As long as I play this game I'll always be learning. It's about growing and if you think you've ever reached the ceiling, then that's when you get out of it."

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.