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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part I: Anthony Spencer vs. Victor Butler

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Jonathan Bales

In last year’s “Training Camp Battles” Series, I analyzed the Cowboys’ most intriguing positional battles heading into the season.  I’m continuing the series this year with a matchup that might not even be much of a competition.  It has kind of been assumed in the past that Anthony Spencer’s starting job is secure, and that Victor Butler, Brandon Williams and company are all competing to garner snaps behind Spencer and DeMarcus Ware.  Perhaps it is because Spencer is a former first-round selection, or maybe the Cowboys think his run-stopping ability is far superior to his backups, but it needs to end.  And it needs to end in 2011.

With new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Big D, I think there is finally a legitimate shot of Butler unseating Spencer from the starting strong-side outside linebacker position.  With Ryan’s version of the 3-4 defense calling for multiple pass-rushing linebackers on the field together, Butler at least figures to see far more than the 157 snaps he saw in 2010.  But even 300 snaps is not nearly enough for a player who, in my opinion, should be starting opposite Ware from Week 1.  Here is why. . .

In my 2010 Outside Linebacker Grades, I provided Butler with a 89.9% and Spencer with an 84.6% (for the record, Ware received a 94.0%).  My grades are obviously based on efficiency as opposed to total production, but the gap between Butler and Spencer, in terms of pure efficiency, was rather vast.  You can see to the right that Butler’s sacks-per-rush were over twice that of Spencer.  With only 157 snaps, though, I think sacks are a poor indicator of Butler’s play.  The same can be said for hits, which are perhaps even more fluky than sacks.

In my view, quarterback pressures are the best determiner of a pass rusher’s worth.  Of course you want a player who can bring the quarterback down once he reaches him, but past sacks have been shown to be a worse predictor of future sacks than past pressures, i.e. despite being less valuable in games, pressures are “more valuable” than sacks in statistical analysis.  Butler’s pressure rate of .118 is incredible–even better than that of Ware.

But what about Butler’s run-stopping ability?  He’s a pass-rush specialist, some argue, and his numbers are inflated due to an increased percentage of snaps against the pass.  Errrntttt. (Like a buzzer.  Like at the end of games, ya know?  Like I’m saying the hypothetical Butler “hater” is wrong in his assessment of Butler’s efficiency.  Whatever.)

On the contrary, Butler actually played the highest percentage of snaps against the run of any outside linebacker in 2010.  39.5% compared to Spencer’s 38.6%.  Good numbers for us, because it makes the statistics of the two players very comparable.  You can see Butler’s production against the run is arguably superior to that of Spencer.  He recorded a tackle on 7.6% of his snaps in 2010, compared to 5.6% for the former Purdue Boilermaker.  And oh yeah, Butler also didn’t miss a single tackle.  Spencer missed six.

Some might argue that we should expect Butler’s stats to be superior to Spencer’s because Butler’s lack of sizable snaps means he is always at near-100%.  Efficiency numbers might be a poor barometer of value because we should expect the players who receive the most snaps to get a little tired and see at least a small decline in play.

That is certainly the best argument in favor of Spencer retaining his starting job, but it is also in some ways irrelevant to Butler.  He has played incredibly while in the game, and that’s all he can do.  At the very least, it is the job of the coaches to make sure the players who are performing at the highest level receive the most playing time.  Butler’s 157 snaps in 2010 is a joke.  DCT readers knew before the 2010 season began that Butler was a rising player (dare I say potential star?) who deserved more snaps.  Actually, just prior to the season I wrote:

Victor Butler will play close to 250 snaps and will record at least five sacks.

The kid has shown he is ready for more playing time.  There’s no way Coach Phillips wants DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer playing 1,100+ snaps again this season, so either Butler or Brandon Williams will have to step up.

Butler was phenomenal in the preseason, particularly against the run (and we know he can get to the passer).

So why didn’t Butler get the snaps in 2010?  Unlike Wade Phillips, I think Rob Ryan has the guts to sit a veteran in favor of a more productive player.  At the very least, he should increase Butler’s snaps until the production and efficiency of both players (combined) is maximized.  At that point, the Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production will be reached.

Think of it like this: as Butler’s snaps increase, his production will, at some point, decline (due to fatigue, increased attention from the offense and so on).  Once his efficiency declines to the point of Spencer’s, the Nash equilibrium will be reached.  Although neither player’s individual production will be maximized, the overall efficiency of the outside linebacker position will be at its peak.

When you have an All-World player like DeMarcus Ware, the Nash equilibrium is shifted to Ware playing as many snaps as possible, i.e. a tired Ware is better than anyone else.  Spencer isn’t Ware.  When he is tired, he needs to come out of the game.  Ryan should shift the snap count of Spencer and Butler until the ‘Boys reach their Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production.  I have a strong feeling that equilibrium would result in Butler receiving the majority of snaps.

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18 Responses to Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part I: Anthony Spencer vs. Victor Butler

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Interesting comparison…

    I guess I’m not as down on Spencer as everyone else seems to be. His numbers have been comparable to that of Ellis just about each year. Spencer has been in the league and contributing significantly (playing at least 1/2 the games) since 2007 – in fact, he started 6 games as a rookie and played all 16 games that year. During that time, he’s averaged 50 tackles, about 4.5 sacks, a little more than 1 forced fumble and just over 2 passes defened per season. That’s not all that bad. Chris Ellis, during his 1st 4 years averaged 47.5 tackles, almost 5 sacks, a little more than 3 passes defended and almost 1 FF per season. Spencer is a SOLID LB, just like Ellis used to be.

    Victor Butler certainly has improved and quite possibly could be better than Spencer. However, an outright replacement of Spencer (moving Butler to starter) would have some fairly significant ramifications – mostly to the psyche of Spencer but also to the dynamic of the team. What do you do w/ Spencer at that point – trade him (to the Texans)? Keep him as a backup where everyone knows he lost his starting job in the prime of his career?

    There are other sites (Blogging the Boys, espn, etc.) that surmise that both Spencer and Butler (and Ware) should all play more in Rob Ryan’s system. That may be true but replacing a 295 lb. DE w/ a 265 lb. LB doesn’t always translate. Sooner or later, smarter def coords are gonna see what the Boys are doing and capitalize via smart audibles.

    While this a great problem to have – two LBs who seem to both be fairly solid – it’s also a dilemma. I say TRADE Victor Butler for a 3rd or perhaps even a 2nd round pick to an AFC 3-4 team (Texans, Steelers, Dolphins, Bills or Ravens) – Butler being a 4th round pick would mean an increase in value over his original draft stock and quite possibly could turn into an additional 1st round pick next year (if the gained pick is packaged w/ a similar round pick).

  2. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    That would be GREG Ellis (not sure where I got Chris from).

  3. Knowbody Knowsbetta says:

    Trade Butler…dude what are you smoking. I assume you were joking. We have no depth behind Ware and Spencer. Not to mention that Butler performs better than Spencer (Sorry to bust that bubble). Your only make trades when you
    A. Have a surplus at the position (WE DONT)
    B. Have his replacement on t he roster ready to step in. (WE DONT)
    C. Can get High Value when “B” is affirmative. (Ffor the record your not getting a high draft pick for Butler at this time since he cannot show off his skill because the bust in front of him if there by default.)
    D. Player to be traded is not living up to contract/cap hit (Not The Case here)

  4. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Knowbody,

    I know this is a “change” in philosophy that most Cowboys fans have become accustomed to but I disagree. Trading solid backups is the MODEL of good teams (Patriots trading Cassel, Eagles trading Kolb, Saints trading Bush, etc.). You can’t hang on to every guy you think will be good when you have obvious deficiencies at other positions. Plus, there are other OLBs on the roster besides Ware, Spencer and Butler. Alex Albright is said to be having a fairly solid camp and keep in mind that Carter was an OLB at North Carolina.

    The overwhelming fact is that the Cowboys were 6-10 last year and can’t afford to be solid at every position including the 1st backup – the only position where a player that’s almost as good as the starter is important is QB. All others, you expect some drop off in production/performance when the starter goes down. Besides, on top of that, Ware and Spencer have been fairly durable.

    Second, as far as trade value, other GMs aren’t stupid – they know Butler’s value the same way you and I do. Butler could probably start for at least 5 other teams in the league and would garner at quite a bit of interest given his cheap contract and age. Spencer wouldn’t garner as much value as his contract is more expensive (and would therefore draw less interest).

    The trading of Butler to me indicates an effort by the Boys to do a couple of things: improve OTHER areas of the team that need it w/ the possibility of better options (maybe he’s traded for a better OG or slot WR or for a draft pick next year) and faith in their drafting (of Carter) and coaching abilities (of other potential backups). Would you rather have a solid starter and solid backup at the same position or a solid starter and average backup but upgrade another position on the team that’s below average?

    But, my overall point, which it seems I failed to convey correctly, was to mention that he is either traded OR plays at the same time as Spencer and not in spite of. Since I think it might be difficult to do the latter w/ some consistency later in the season (since teams will adapt to having 5 LBs on the field), I advocate trading Butler after he’s had some time on the field to show off his wares just prior to the trade deadline in Oct.

  5. Scott says:

    Not concerned too much with who is the nominal starter, but Butler certainly deserves more snaps, and in some cases I think Spencer and Butler will be on the field at the same time. There is concern that we’re depending on the scheme to improve since the 10 of the 11 starters on D are the same, but I think Butler is one of the x-factors, a guy whose time has come and will take a big step this year and help the defense be a lot better even though it is the same guys.

  6. john coleman says:

    TJ- I agree with the assessment of Spencer. I also agree that Butler might be better. IMO we need to give Butler his chance and see. I do not agree with trading Butler now or before the Oct. deadline. We may be that long before the guys are really comfotable in the new D. Let’s hope they grasp enough of it to do the job. I also do not agree with the argument of 295lbs vs. 265lbs, and audibles exposing us. In that case we are assuming that the O is successful and the D loses. In reality the O is concerned with the alignment and are counting on big slow guys to overpower a quicker player. So it comes down to who makes the play. I think it is obvious that Butler is a playmaker.

    To me, I give both a shot, and use 3 OLB’s as well. Let the best man win. Hopefully they both do. I know in the Game vs. the Broncos, Butler was around the ball a lot. He was very effective on Tebow. It left me with visions of Michael Vick running for his life, unsuccessfully. Butler won’t have to hit him low either. Just deliver a blow!

    The other guy Williams is a much bigger question mark for me. As far as Carter goes, I’m fairly sure that he is destined for ILB.

  7. john coleman says:

    Scott- I need to point out that 10 of 11 starters is wrong. We have Coleman, Elam, and Lee that were not starters last year. I believe Coleman and Elam start for sure and likely Lee as well. Brooking will be in rotation either way, at a 50/50 or less clip. If Butler end up starting that is another new guy.

    I also think the new scheme makes totally new players out of guys like Spears and Hatcher. Even further, Ratliff stands to be better off in this system.

  8. Vince_Grey says:

    TJ- I have to agree with Knowbody. You’re entitled to your opinion of course, but you are WAY off base with the idea of trading Butler. In today’s NFL defense is ALL about the pass rush, and if Butler can pressure from the other side, he’ll be incredibly valuable to the Cowboys. More valuable than Spencer at the way Spencer is producing right now.

    Also, his potential value is a lot more than some 3-4 round pick, even a 2nd rounder, which I don’t believe anyone would give for a guy who couldn’t start for a bad defense last year. It’s not 1974 any more and Dallas can no longer con teams into giving high draft picks for the players they no longer want like Craig Morton and Toby Smith.

    Also, Wade’s insistence on playing older vets, and Jerry’s seemingly insistence on playing the higher priced guy despite production, has IMO hindered the Cowboys a lot. That seems to be changing and that’s a good thing for everyone.

    I say Butler definitely gets a lot more playing time this year and likely could take Spencer’s job soon, and I have no problem with that. If that happens and we can possibly trade Spencer next year for a decent pick then fine.

    But trade possibly our 2nd best pass rusher? Insanity.

  9. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Good points everyone. I especially agree w/ the insistence of playing higher priced (but less productive guys) . . . hopefully that will change in Rob Ryan’s system.

    Let’s hope for the Boys sake that you’ll are right and I’m wrong as it seems the Boys plan on keeping Butler. I would think that trading Spencer, if Butler proves better, should be an option – frankly, I don’t really care who is traded as long as value is garnered. My thoughts are that a solid FS in next years draft (Elam and Sensabaugh are both on 1 yr contracts for a reason) is worth a backup OLB – whoever the backup ends up being.

    The Boys track record of drafting LBs is such that you can pretty much bet on them using a pick on an LB in one of the 1st 4 rounds of every draft (been the case since 2005). Regardless of whos’ traded, the Boys will be itchin to fill that vacancy…

  10. Mark Watkins says:

    Not to pile on Tyrone, but I also think it would be a huge mistake to trade Butler. Like Jonathan writes, he has the potential to be not only a very solid starter, but maybe even a star. And with the draft being a crapshoot, especially for the Boys it seems, they can’t afford to trade Butler away for even a 2nd rounder. I don’t believe they would get that either though. They also need the depth if they’re going to have any chance to be competitive. I think that you might be coming at this from a standpoint of not expecting the Boys to be serious playoff contenders this year (partly based upon your previous comments too), but I don’t think they can just trade away their rotational depth, or potential starters, without giving themselves a chance. Butler seems to have better burst and a higher motor than Spencer, and I think that he will end up getting a larger amount of snaps. But I also see both players getting a good amount to keep them fresh in this defense.

  11. Vince_Grey says:

    Mark – Completely agree. And, also not to pile on TJ (Though it sure looks that way, doesn’t it?) but I get a kick out of reading and listening to so many fans saying stuff like, “Hey, why don’t we trade our 3rd string QB and our old, worn out RB with the ridiculous contract to (Insert bad team here) for their 1st and 2nd round picks?”

    Ha ha… well sure, if you can do that, great, but no one’s going to do that nonsense. People need to be a LOT more realistic about a player’s real value compared to draft picks.

  12. Rick says:

    Defending the run isn’t just getting tackles, though. Yeah, that missed tackle rate is a bit high for someone considered a “force” against the run, but a lot of the times the job of the linebacker is to eat a lead blocker and force the runner to change directions. I have to say that Spencer is at least 100x better than this than Butler is.

    But Butler should at least be playing on 3rd downs. He’s a really gifted pass rusher.

  13. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Fellas, no worries about the pile ons. I’m an older guy (I like the term “seasoned vet”) and am very thick skinned after years in the military so you won’t get heartache from me – especially when the points being made are valid and well constructed like yours.

    But, in defense of my line of thinking, let me offer a little of my perspective wrt the team:

    1). I’m a season ticket holder. The tickets are in the upper section (not very good), but they cost a guy like me a considerable amount . To me, it was worth it. I mention this to show that I’m not a closet Giants, Eagles or dare I say Redskins fan posing as a Cowboys fan with the intentions of spreading hate. That is just not me. I love my team and hope the best at all times.

    2). Keeping in mind my 1st point, I am also a realist. Always have been. And being that way, I realize that the Cowboys were a 5-11 team last year. I realize their record was 6-10 but the last game wasn’t so much a win as it was the Eagles conceding a loss in that most of the starters were in street clothes on the sideline signing autographs and posing for pics with the cheerleaders while resting for the playoffs. This was a game the Boys tried desperately to win and did so by just 1 pt. Even though it was a W, it goes down as an achievement unfulfilled in my book.

    3). I’m also an AAU basketball coach. I’ve been associated w/ college (played some Div I basketball a few years back) and was a fairly decent athlete in both football and baseball as well. So I know a little about sports and coaching and can recognize talent both among players and coaches.

    And, as already mentions, I spent a career in the military and am familiar w/ govt beauracracy and dealing w/ varying personalities, ideas and the lack of being able to think outside the box.

    Given this makeshift biography of myself (I know most of you are probably yawning), all these aspects lead me to the line of thinking that the Boys will be an average team next year. This comes from watching them, following their training camp as much as I can via this website and others like Dallas Morning News and Blooging the Boys. I also watch other teams – AFC and NFC. And all signs indicate the Boys will be better but not a serious Superbowl or even NFC title contender. Now, it would be great if they made it, but I don’t think they’re currently configured to do so.

    So, I want the Boys to IMPROVE. From my experience, that happens in 3 ways: drafting better, coaching better and making smart/tough decisions that benefit the franchise for the long run. It seems as if the drafting has improved in that a concentration toward guys who possess the right kind of work ethic and skills are emphasized over pure talent. Essentially, the right kinda guys (RKG) are being drafted now. Drafting better – check!. Coaching better seems to be the case in that Garrett and Ryan are motivators while also holding players accountable more than last year. Coaching better – check!

    That brings up the decision making – the hardest part of the equation. Decision making is essentially a risk matrix where the benefits and pitfalls are identified and leadership pulls the trigger on what they are comfortable with. First decision that made sense this year was their attempt at Nnamdi – they went to their threshold and stayed there. Ultimately, Nnamdi went somewhere else but that certainly wasn’t a Cowboys failure. So far, decision making – check!

    There will be more decisions, of course. Hence, the nature and reasoning for the above article. Training camp battles where the younger (and cheaper) player wins are almost always win-win. The team gets like production at a cheaper rate while also ensuring at least some trade value for the starter who loses out. I think the Boys are there w/ Butler and Spencer. Personnally, I hope Butler wins and Spencer is traded (combine w/ TC) for a 2nd round pick. Whatever trade possibility, it probably shouldn’t happen until Carter and Murray are both healthy and can somewhat fulfill the new backup role (I know that Carter was drafted to move inside but view him as a tweener . . . the kid ran a 4.37 40 yd dash and that smells of OLB to me).

    Again, not trying to beat a dead horse or add to fodder to the “pile-on” camp but that makes the most sense to me. If both Spencer and Butler are kept, it wouldn’t be a BAD thing in my opinion, just not as good as the value that could be gained for the next best alternative (perhaps on the O line or secondary).

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  15. JJ says:

    I’m late to the party on this one but the volleying is intriguing.

    Butler provides an all too important ingredient that is not ever present with the Cowboys except for Ware and Ratliff—pressure.

    It is Spencer that is in his contract year and Butler seems to get better and better. I agree with the NE philosophy but they trade guys that are “OVER” valued based on the teams success (the Cowboys have not had much success) and they know when to trade players at the end of their careers.

    I did mention on a previous post that Ryan would try to get Butler, Ware and Spencer on the field together during passing downs…he did that during the Denver game and I expect more of the same.

  16. Mark Watkins says:

    I didn’t mind your ‘biography’ Tyrone. It does help to understand where you’re coming from. I wasn’t suspecting you of being a closet fan of an NFC competitor either. And I also think that the chances of the Boys winning the conference are pretty slim. That would be a huge jump. At the same time, hope springs eternal this time of year and I’m not willing to make any concessions just yet. They might just catch lightning in a bottle like some teams do. I don’t think that many prognosticators chose GB to win it all last year, but they had a lot of guys step up, many of them backups. I wouldn’t be opposed to possibly trading Spencer and others if they get off to a start like they did last year. But I would keep Butler over him because I just feel like he has more upside and is under team control for longer, obviously. Like you mentioned, I do think they’re headed in the right direction for sure. I loved the hiring of JG and I believe that if JJ truly gives him the reins, good things will happen.

    I also agree with JJ that many of those successful teams do trade away players that are overvalued or on the downside of their career, ala Randy Moss. I look forward to seeing what Rob Ryan can do with all of these guys together.

  17. moses says:

    Trading Butler makes sense if the Cowboys are not going to use him as part of the rotation or in special packages where Ware, Spencer and Butler are on the field at the same time.

    Even if we trade him, I have not been impressed with the drafts of late. Evaluating the drafts of the past 5 yrs have been pretty average. So, I don’t know if we would get a better player for him.

    I think the Cowboys ought to trade Choice since they don’t seem to like him and he rides the bench a lot. When he gets into the game, he is a very effective back

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