Spencer will enter the free-agent market as an outside linebacker coming off a season with six sacks. He started fast, with three sacks in the first three weeks of the season, but he finished 2011 with no sacks the last four weeks.
It's not so much the sacks that are important, but the pressures. Out of an estimated 939 defensive snaps this past season, Spencer hit the quarterback nine times and recorded 39 pressures. In comparison, DeMarcus Ware had eight hits and 44 pressures. Ware finished second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks. Jay Ratliff, the talented nose tackle, seemed to wear down as the season progressed because of the constant double-teams he faced. Yet Ratliff finished with 21 pressures and six hits on the quarterback.
Spencer was asked to drop back in coverage at times, but you would have liked to see more from him. The Cowboys might not give Spencer the long-term deal he seeks, and if they franchise him, it will cost the team $8.8 million.
The draft is filled with defensive ends who can convert to outside linebacker, and might possess the speed and power to help Ware and Ratliff in the pass rush.
Spencer is a valued member of the Cowboys, but his impact seems minimized by the play of Ware and Ratliff. The team might be forced to let him sign with another team for somebody who will be cheaper financially.
Is it worth it?
The Cowboys have to find out starting March 13.
Time for the mailbag.
Q: Do you think the Cowboys make some changes in their secondary? -- Hermelindo Cardenas (Naples, Fla.)
A: Jerry Jones said to expect some new faces in the secondary. There are three main players who are free agents -- Alan Ball, Frank Walker and Abram Elam -- so expect some of those gentlemen to not return. Then there's the curious case of Terence Newman, who slumped the back end of the season. If he's released, the Cowboys can save as much as $4 million on the salary cap. There was a thought he would have been cut prior to the 2011 season, but it didn't happen. In fact, Newman started 2011 playing well, but for some reason, he didn't play on a consistent basis in the last two months of the year. Drafting a cornerback is a possibility, but you have to ask yourself whether finding a pass-rusher or an offensive guard is more important than cornerback in the first round.
Q: Will the Cowboys ever trade Dez [Bryant] and keep Laurent Robinson? -- Scott (Burleson, Texas)
A: Scott, the Cowboys are not trading Dez Bryant. He's too talented a player to let go, and with his antics off the field, I'm not sure a team wants to deal for him. So for now, the Cowboys need to make sure he is healthy and continues to understand the playbook. He's not going anywhere. Robinson is an interesting case. He said he wants to return, but at what cost? He just did two days of charity work in the Dallas area this week, and it shows he likes the area. But what do you pay him? That's an answer Jerry Jones might not know.
Q: Hey Calvin, how many losing seasons is it going to take for Jerry Jones to step down as G.M.? -- Horacio Rivas (Brownsville, Texas)
A: Jerry Jones isn't going anywhere. The key for Jones is what he does with the information he receives from his personnel people when it comes to the draft and free agency. There are all sorts of opinions on what to do and what not to do with players. Jones hasn't done a good job of building depth at several positions the past few years, and we saw that firsthand with the offensive line. If the Cowboys don't re-sign Robinson, the depth at wideout is lacking, too. Jones has to fix this, and he must listen to the personnel people he hired to help him.
Q: What do you think the realistic chances are that we move Jay Ratliff to defensive end and get a 325-pounder in the middle to clog the run lanes? Ratliff does a great job, but it seems the daily grind wears him down during the season. I believe we need to find ways to get more pressure with our front three to help this defense out. What are your thoughts on this? -- Joe Smith (Chesapeake, Va.)
A: Joe, Ratliff and I have had our issues over the years, but he's an outstanding nose tackle. He does so much as an undersized nose tackle. However, I agree he should move to defensive end. The constant pounding his body takes is wearing him down. I would like to see Jason Hatcher and Ratliff as the ends in 2012, and give either Josh Brent or Sean Lissemore a shot at being the starting nose tackle. Ratliff is better suited as a pass-rusher off the edge, and there was some experimentation with this a few years ago under Wade Phillips. Ratliff doesn't want to be switched back and forth between end and nose tackle, so if the Cowboys make a decision to move him to end, keep him there.
Q: Do you see the Cowboys organization pursuing Peyton Manning if he is released by the Colts? -- Jerome (Wilmington, N.C.)
A: Why would they do this? It makes no sense. There is nothing wrong with Tony Romo. Nothing. Manning is in his mid-30s and coming off neck surgery, and there is no way of knowing how he'll hold up if hit. Romo is a good quarterback and someone who doesn't get enough credit.
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.