NFC East Top 20: No. 17 Anthony Spencer

In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post. And if you want to read any of the other posts that have run since we started this series, you can find them all here, in this link.

No. 17 -- Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys DE

(Last year: Not ranked)

One of seven new additions to this year's list, Spencer debuts at a position he's not yet played in a real NFL game. After a season in which he posted 11 sacks -- as many as he'd collected in the previous two seasons combined -- Spencer moves up from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end in the Cowboys' rearranged scheme. He'll also play as the team's franchise player for the season year in a row, and if that provided him incentive to deliver a big pass-rushing year in 2012, there's no reason to think it won't do so again.

Spencer has long been looked at by the Cowboys as something of an underappreciated defender. They have loved his work against the run for years, though the coaching staff was hoping he'd also eventually take a big step forward as a pass-rusher. He showed the ability, as the Cowboys put together a division-winning run in December of 2009, to serve as a ferocious complement to DeMarcus Ware in the pass rush. But that disappeared for a couple of seasons until last year, when Spencer began hassling and knocking down quarterbacks at a much higher rate.

Now moved up to the line, where he'll grapple with offensive tackles on every play instead of operating in a broader space from which he could choose his route to the backfield, Spencer faces another challenge. And missing training camp following arthroscopic knee surgery certainly hasn't helped him prepare. But based on what he showed last year as a pass-rusher, and the fact that that's all that was missing from his game, I feel confident elevating Spencer to the NFC East Top 20 as we head into 2013.

The rest of the rankings:

18. London Fletcher, LB, Washington Redskins

19. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

20. Jason Hatcher, DL, Dallas Cowboys