Last summer, I labeled Anthony Spencer as one of the Cowboys' most underrated players and used stats to predict he’d register a career-high in sacks. After five years in the NFL and no more than six sacks in a single season, Spencer erupted for 11 sacks and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2012.
The breakout campaign was a blessing and a curse for the Cowboys because, well, now it's time to pay up. Set to hit free agency in March, Spencer is seeking to cash in on his productive season. The Cowboys want to retain Spencer if possible; he's obviously a talented player who should fit nicely in their new 4-3 scheme.
Like they do with any free agent, the 'Boys need to assess Spencer's worth and provide him with a contract offer that makes sense for both parties. The problem is that Spencer's 2012 season was a bit of an outlier; if Dallas pays Spencer as if he's a long-term 11-sack player, they're going to be disappointed. So the question is "What is Spencer's market value?"
Last week, I deduced Tony Romo’s market value – in the range of $13-14 million per season – by comparing past quarterback contracts with a measure called expected points added (EPA). A quick refresher on the metric:
In a nutshell, an offense can be expected to score a certain number of points on any given drive based on various game situations, such as down-and-distance and field position. A first-and-10 at your own 20-yard line has historically been worth an average gain of 0.34 expected points, for example. By tracking the change in expected points that a player generates on a per-play basis, you can get a really good idea of how well he's performing.
When I compared the expected points generated by quarterbacks in the year prior to their new contracts with the per-season average of their deals, I found a very strong relationship. That is, with the exception of a contract or two (see Mark Sanchez's $58.3 million deal), organizations have been very efficient when paying quarterbacks for their actual worth.
Market Value for Pass-Rushers
To determine Spencer's market value, I decided to collect the same data. I charted the recent contracts of the highest-paid pass-rushers in the NFL, both 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers, and compared their per-season average with the expected points they generated per game.
Unlike with quarterbacks, there wasn't much of a relationship. You can see the points scattered all over the graph, indicating teams aren't paying pass-rushers in accordance with EPA. That should make sense,; organizations care about production, and there's no easier way to measure that than with sacks.
While the correlation between a pass-rusher's contract and his sacks isn't as strong as that for quarterbacks and their EPA, there's certainly still a relationship, suggesting NFL teams are paying pass-rushers primarily for sacks. The two outliers are Mario Williams and DeMarcus Ware. Williams registered 8.5 sacks in 2010 and barely played in 2011 before inking a deal with the Bills worth $16 million annually. In terms of the going rate for sacks, Buffalo overpaid by a wide margin. Meanwhile, Dallas signed Ware after his 20-sack season to a deal worth $11.1 million per year – a steal, based on market value.
The problem with paying for sacks, however, is that they're a fluky stat and not entirely representative of a player's true ability. That was the case with Spencer prior to 2012, when his sacks weren't matching up with how often he was reaching the passer. Had the Cowboys paid Spencer in 2011, they likely could have gotten a tremendous deal.
Coming off of a career year, however, Spencer wants to get paid like an 11-sack player, and rightfully so. Based on past deals, the market value for an edge-rusher coming off an 11-sack season is right in the neighborhood of $10 million per year. Denver's Elvis Dumervil, Philadelphia's Trent Cole, and Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley have all recently signed deals in that range.
So is Spencer worth that type of money? Let's examine his EPA. In 2012, Spencer registered 3.70 EPA per game. That's a career-high, primarily due to his 55 solo tackles. Adding the three prior seasons into the mix, Spencer has averaged 2.95 EPA per game since 2009.
Guess what? That's nearly exactly the same as the 2.99 EPA per game generated by the 13 pass-rushers I charted above. And guess what else? The average per-season value for those players is $10.5 million, just about what Spencer's 2012 sacks say he's worth. All in all, Spencer has performed like a $10-11 million per year player, not just in 2012, but in the three prior seasons as well.
Getting Value on Spencer
If the Cowboys want to sign Spencer to a long-term deal and still get value, they could use a few different angles to approach contract talks. The first is that Spencer has averaged only seven sacks per year since 2009, meaning 2012 was an outlier. The market value for seven-sack players is around $6 million per year, quite a step down from $10-11 million. Their second bargaining chip is that Spencer just turned 29 years old. That's hardly a death sentence to his future production, but if they can convince Spencer and his agent that they'll pay the pass-rusher as though he'll see a small decline in play toward the end of his deal, they might find value. [embedded_ad]
Ultimately, Spencer's market value and actual worth are both in the area of $10 million. The 'Boys need to find a way to pay Spencer solely for his sacks over the past few seasons. It's a tough sell, but pass-rushers get paid for sacks, and Spencer has only one season with double-digit sacks to his name. If he's willing to accept a contract in the neighborhood of $7-8 million annually, I think the Cowboys should do what they can to lock him up. If not, they might need to move on.