Thanks to the debate on this page which has helped sharpen my thinking on a host of issues, bringing in stats and opposing viewpoints on the various Cowboys "needs."
Based on what I've been reading, I've decided to take Jerry and JG at their word: we are looking to draft the BPA. In a way, this gives us the best chance to gather in people who are dominant at their position--or have a chance of being dominant at their position.
Let me quickly define "dominance": it means that this player has the chance, any given game, to beat good opponents--given their position. (E.g., a "dominant" 3d WR does not have to be able to beat a double-team.) It does not mean the best in the game. Finally, realize that I am being generous here, willing to give the benefit of the doubt to players that we believe can be dominant.
On offense, this includes our WR core; our QB; and our TE. To be a bit more generous, it includes our two tackles (I have to cross my fingers here, but I think Free and Tyron have both shown the potential to be dominant) and our RB duo (when healthy, Free and Murray have posted some rather impressive YPA). On defense, it includes only 3 names: Ware, Ratliff, Lee. Otherwise, we have a few guys who might or might not become dominant (Carter, Jenkins) and a lot of guys who simply won't (everybody else?).
The second category is starters. We have a lot of players who, quite frankly, will start somewhere if they don't start for Dallas. Sensi, Spencer, Scandrick--they're not blowing up their position but we don't need to let them walk. That said, if their contracts become too rich, we can probably find someone else to take their place without feeling any remorse. I'd include Fiametta and Bennett in this category, and most of our defensive line.
The final category is needs, which I am here defining as non-starters. If we go into the draft with these needs unmet, we must draft to meet the need. That gets in the way of BPA, since these positions might (or might not) give us that shot at a guy who's high on our board but fell to us. And that gets in the way of BUILDING dominance.
I know everyone here cares more about dominance at some positions than others--and rightly so. We want a dominant offensive line, and dominant pass rushers. The question is not whether these are important. The question is whether we are more likely to get them by taking care of our needs--the non-starters--and then allowing the draft to bring us people who can eventually become dominant. Maybe not even in their first year--guys like Tyron and Lee bring value precisely because we can project dominance for a decade, even when the start is slow.
Which positions, given this perspective, do we currently lack starters? I don't think it's the O-line. I'd love a really solid interior as much as anyone. But we currently have 6 guys (Kosier, Holland, Costa, Kowalski, Nagy, Arkin) who might provide an answer at any given interior O-line position. Two of these are a bit too old; three are insufficiently tested (and trained) to know what we have; one of them gets mixed reviews (Costa). Likely, none of them will ever be dominant. But we have starters.
Ditto for our defensive line. We have people who are grinding it out with a fair amount of confidence, people who will probably play elsewhere if not for Dallas. Sure, we can let them go if they get greedy. Sure, they aren't dominant. But they are starters.
That leaves the secondary. Even here, it's a real question how many men we have to replace to bring us back to a functioning unit--one? two? three? I think it's safe to say the answer isn't zero.
It seems to me that once we have starters at every position, we can approach the draft AND the free agency from a strict BPA viewpoint. This year, we are not going to get dominant everywhere. Take a deep breath and deal with it. So don't say over and over, "The center is important, the center is important, the pass rush is important, the pass rush is important." Instead, wait for it to come to you. Maybe we'll draft a guard who dominates for a decade. Maybe we'll sign a free agent pass rusher who isn't a poor fit for our defense and sparking a bidding war. But we can't chase these positions, any more than we can chase the illusory "shut-down corner" or the "Darren Woodson safety."
Here's where optimism is realism. By recognizing that Dallas does have players who can hold down their positions--by having a little faith--we can hold ourselves back from chasing something that simply isn't cost-effective, whether "cost" means cap money or draft position. Instead, we can sit back and look for what comes to us--that's the path to lasting dominance.