WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The defense drew Anthony Spencer.
Two years and a microfracture surgery on his knee removed from his best season in the NFL, Spencer found himself testing the free-agent waters this offseason, looking for a spot other than the one he occupied in Dallas for eight seasons.
He chose to return to the defense that made him a star.
“I like the defense that he plays,” Spencer said. “I felt like it put me in the best position to be who I am, to be the kind of player I am.”
Spencer, at his best, was the perfect running mate for DeMarcus Ware in Rob Ryan’s defenses in Dallas, a prototypical strong-side — or Sam, in coaches’ parlance — linebacker who complemented Ware well. With Ryan at the helm, Spencer racked up 17 sacks in 2011 and 2012, establishing himself as a versatile, powerful three-down player.
Then the injury happened.
What was originally diagnosed as a bone bruise ended with Spencer undergoing microfracture surgery, a procedure that involves drilling tiny holes in the lower leg bone, allowing the body to form a big clot that serves as a base for the regrowth of cartilage.
The procedure can be a difficult one for athletes, and it has left more than a few unable to return to their former selves.
Two years removed now, Spencer feels like he’s healthy again, save for a muscle issue that kept him out of practice for most of the first week of training camp. Compared to what he was dealing with last fall, when he struggled to get his movement in his first season back after the surgery, the former Cowboys linebacker feels like new.
“I don’t think (it’s changed my style of play),” Spencer said. “I feel really good right now.”
What Spencer can bring to the Saints remains to be seen. Initially, Spencer was ticketed for the Sam position — the same spot he played under Ryan in Dallas — but rookie Hau’oli Kikaha has come on so strong that the Saints are testing out Spencer at the Jack position behind Cameron Jordan, a spot that’s being played as a true defensive end in a 4-3 this season. That’s where Spencer was listed on the first unofficial depth chart of the preseason, but more changes could be coming.
If the Saints decide they’d rather use Kasim Edebali at defensive end and Spencer at linebacker — New Orleans has been testing out some changes at positions that are similar — he could be back at his old position soon.
In reality, though, the Saints signed Spencer to be an edge rusher, a spot he’s looked good at in his few limited reps during training camp. From what the Saints have shown so far, that makes Spencer a defensive end in Ryan’s nickel and dime packages, personnel groups the Saints will spend as much as 70 percent of their snaps playing this season.
“He’s just a guy that we feel like can be a pressure player,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “With as much of the game as is spent in sub-offense and sub-defense, those guys are valuable. He has been healthy. I thought his spring was good. He has a good feel for what we are doing.”
Spencer has used his knowledge of the defense to help Kikaha, who has arguably improved more rapidly than any other player in camp, pick up Ryan’s scheme, even though it’s a simplified version this year.
Few Saints know Ryan’s scheme better.
“He’s willing to help, he has a lot of knowledge of the game,” Saints outside linebacker Ronald Powell said. “He pulls you to the side during practice, he’ll pull you to the side after practice, he’s always involved.”
Now that Spencer’s healthy, he can transition from coach to player and resume his comeback pursuit.
At 31 years old, Spencer thinks he can still be an impact rusher in Ryan’s defense, and the Saints will need plenty of production to emerge at that spot after the team’s decision to release Junior Galette right before training camp.
All Spencer has to prove is that he’s still capable of being an impact player in the scheme that fits him best.
“You count the numbers, so yeah, (there’s an opportunity),” Spencer said. “Working on pass rush, drops, everything. It’s still early, so we’ve got a lot of time.”