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FOR TOO LONG ANTHONY SPENCER HAS BEEN "THE OTHER GUY" IN DALLAS'S FIERCE PASS RUSH. OF COURSE WHEN YOU LINE UP OPPOSITE DEMARCUS WARE, you're never going to be "the guy," and Spencer knows that. Still, this is his year to become somebody.
The Cowboys' star-studded 3-4 defense brings a lot of heat, especially off the edge. The inside linebackers (bolstered by 2010 draft pick Sean Lee) and the big bodies up front ensure that only so many offensive blockers can be used to counter the team's one-two push off the edge.
It's pick your poison, says the 26-year-old Spencer.
"Anything third-and-five or more [Ware and I] will both be peeling our ears back and going," says the 6' 3", 255-pound outside linebacker. "It's difficult for teams to pick us both up, and we've got [defensive tackle] Jay Ratliff in the middle." Because most teams choose (or hope) to stop the four-time Pro Bowler Ware—who in 2008 led the NFL with 20 sacks—Spencer is left with the more favorable matchup. This is precisely why the fourth-year player, who had six sacks and 67 tackles in 2009, is one of the hottest IDP prospects for '10.
And for someone often labeled a pass-rush specialist, Spencer's tackle numbers are appealing as well. He ranked third on the team last year with 67 tackles and had no fewer than five in any of Dallas's final eight regular-season games. Of the 51 NFL players with six or more sacks, only three (James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Kamerion Wimbley) had higher tackle counts than Spencer.
The best part for fantasy owners? Spencer has yet to put together a full season. Things really didn't get going last year until Week 12, when he gobbled up Oakland's Bruce Gradkowski twice. He added four sacks over Weeks 15 through 17 and one in each of Dallas's two playoff games.
"Spencer was one of the best players in the league at the end of last season, in my opinion," Dallas coach Wade Phillips said in February. "I felt good for him even though he didn't get the recognition I thought he should get, but he will if he keeps playing like that."
Chances are, before Spencer receives the proper recognition from his peers, he'll receive it from fantasy owners hungry for sacks. Spencer is always around the football (four forced fumbles in three seasons) and doesn't grumble about having to drop back into coverage.
If the adjustments that Dallas made in its pass-rushing schemes late last season succeed over a full year, fantasy owners could be looking at a sack total of a dozen or more as Spencer becomes a more consistent threat on passing downs. He has also been given the freedom by Phillips on certain downs to use his instincts to make plays, rather than relying on what the rules of defense dictate—a sign the Cowboys have faith in their rising star.
Fantasy owners can have faith too. Faith that Spencer will greatly improve on last year's sack count and continue to reside around the football. And faith that by the end of the season, the name Anthony Spencer will stand on its own.