The Cowboys' Anthony Spencer problem

The Dallas Cowboys franchised Anthony Spencer last year in the hopes that he'd have a big contract year and they'd get the best out of him. They got their wish. Unfortunately, because of that, they may not be able to keep him.

Stephen Jones offered this not-overly-optimistic analysis of the team's chances to retain Spencer, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency while the Cowboys are projected to be about $18 million over the salary cap. Per the Dallas Morning News:

“Unfortunately you’ve got to make difficult decisions,” Jones said. “What that will entail we don’t know quite yet. We’ll be moving forward in a quick way. But obviously Anthony Spencer represents everything we want to be about. He plays hard. His leadership is tremendous. And then on top of that, he’s a great football player.”

The Cowboys can do some things to clear cap room. They can extend Tony Romo's contract, restructure the deals of Brandon Carr and Miles Austin. They can cut some players, like Marcus Spears and Doug Free. They likely could, if they wanted to, clear enough room to allow them to re-sign Spencer to play defensive end in their new 4-3 scheme. The problem is, they likely wouldn't be able to add any other pieces of significance, and they need help on the offensive line as well.

Spencer is going to cost. He made $8.8 million in 2012 on the franchise tag and is likely looking at an eight-figure average salary on the open market. He has the ability to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or defensive end in a 4-3, which increases the size of his market and likely will lead to a bigger deal. He's not likely to do the Cowboys any favors by taking a below-market deal to stay in Dallas, and he shouldn't. The team-friendly way in which NFL contracts are structured takes loyalty almost completely out of the equation. These NFL careers are short, and Spencer needs to get the best possible deal for himself. No one will or should begrudge him that.

So while the Cowboys may want to keep Spencer and he may, in a vacuum, want to stay, I don't see how they can field a competitive offer to keep him. They can't afford to franchise him again. Their only hope of fitting him under this year's cap, even if they did all of that aforementioned work, would be a long-term deal with a prorated signing bonus and a low 2013 base salary. The franchise tag is the opposite of that.

If they do lose Spencer, the Cowboys are likely going to be on the hunt for a pass-rushing defensive end, and those are hard to find. They might end up needing to take one in the first round of the draft. There's some thought that Jason Hatcher could play that spot, and it's possible he can, but he's not a prototypical 4-3 pass-rushing end, and a move like that could leave them thin on the interior of the defensive line. Tyrone Crawford likely isn't ready to be a starter at that position. Losing Spencer could alter the Cowboys' offseason priority list in a major way.

But they and their fans need to be prepared to lose Spencer. Because the right thing for him to do is to hit the open market. And when he does, I think he'll quickly work his way out of the Cowboys' price range.