Fortify a strength, or improve a weakness: what seems to work in the NFL

The upcoming 2012 NFL draft will either propel the Cowboys to future success, or continued mediocre performance. Thanks to poor drafts in the recent past, it is easier to point to the positions that are solid, than list all of the team needs.

DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Sean Lee solidify one outside linebacker, defensive line, and inside linebacker position on defense. Mike Jenkins is still a question mark at cornerback, but is coming off a solid season in 2011.

On offense, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Tyron Smith, Miles Austin, and DeMarco Murray are the reasons that the Cowboys should feel confident standing pat at the positions of quarterback, tight end, offensive tackle, wide receiver, and running back. In addition, a strong case could be made that Dez Bryant, Doug Free, and Dan Bailey will also help the positions of wide receiver, offensive tackle (likely on the right side), and kicker contribute to future success in Dallas.

That leaves all three interior offensive line positions, two defensive line positions, an inside and outside linebacker position, and at least one cornerback position, as well as both safety positions. So three offensive line positions, and seven defensive positions need an immediate upgrade. A new punter may also be needed.

Here lies the great debate. What philosophical premise do most Cowboys fans support in regards to the development of a competitive team?

"What?" may be uttered aloud? Here is the crux of the decision Jason, Jerry, and Stephen have:

There are obviously many needs that need to be addressed on the Cowboys defensive unit. The defense is obviously the most talent starved unit on this Dallas team. Should the Cowboys draft the best defensive players available, or...

Should the Cowboys draft the best interior offensive lineman available, given that the talent levels between the defensive player and offensive lineman are on par with one another? Drafting a great guard would obviously move towards solidifying the strongest unit on the team.

The practical example is easy to present. Assuming that the Dallas scouting department has similar grades on Melvin Ingram (DE, South Carolina), Dre Kirkpatrick (CB, Alabama), and David DeCastro (OG, Stanford), with all three available at pick 14 in the 2012 NFL draft, which player should the Cowboys select?

This basic problem exists in all competitive situations. Should an individual or organization allocate resources towards the area of relative strength, or should the weakest part of the whole be given a higher priority?

Listening to many draft pundits, sports radio talk show hosts, former football players, and former NFL front office types, an argument is made to allocate the best resources towards the improvement of the weakest unit in order to facilitate winning with a balanced team. Finding a great pass rusher to line up opposite the elite DeMarcus Ware could have several benefits. Having a great pass rusher pressure the quarterback from one side, should elevate the performance of the best defensive player on the unit, DeMarcus Ware.

With a partner effectively rushing the quarterback from the opposite side, Ware should have more opportunities to make a difference. Regardless, greater pressure exerted on the quarterback with only a 4-man rush would also greatly help the secondary. Just look at how the recently crowned NFC East division champions, New York Giants allocated their resources on defense.

But if the Cowboys were to take Dre Kirkpatrick, the secondary is greatly improved. The Dallas secondary is obviously the weakest part of the defense. Drafting a great cornerback directly addresses the biggest weakness on the weakest unit. In essence, it is the extreme of the philosophical construct: address the weakest part of the weakest unit.

On the other hand, drafting a blue-chip offensive guard, such as David DeCastro does very little to improve the weakest unit on the team. Fortifying the weakest link on the offensive line, however, may make the Cowboys offense incredibly explosive. By scoring more points and effectively running (or controlling) the ball, the defense is indirectly helped.

So which approach would lead to more wins?

Fortunately, the NFL has offered a possible answer to that question. Look at the most successful teams in the NFL playoffs this season:

Green Bay (15-1, #1 seed in the NFC): #3 on offense, #32 on defense in NFL

San Francisco (13-3, #2 seed in NFC): #26 on offense, #4 on defense in NFL

New Orleans (13-3, #3 seed in NFC): #1 on offense, #24 on defense in NFL

New England (13-3, #1 seed in AFC): #2 on offense, #31 on defense in NFL

Baltimore (13-3, #2 seed in AFC): #15 on offense, #3 on defense in NFL

San Francisco and Baltimore have dominant defenses with a poor and an average offense. Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England have elite offenses, but with poor defenses.

Chances are very good that two teams will face off in the Super Bowl with obvious deficiencies on one side of the ball (only Baltimore has an average unit combined with a great unit). Most of the top five teams in the NFL rely heavily on their offense to win games. In fact, the top three offenses in the league are the three favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Which way will the Cowboys lean?

Consider that Jason Garrett is an offensive coach that is the head coach. Remember that Garrett oversaw the drafting of Tyron Smith with the ninth overall selection of the 2011 NFL draft. That pick broke the longest active streak in NFL history of not drafting an offensive lineman in the first round.

Recognize that the greatest asset on the Dallas Cowboys at this time is quarterback Tony Romo. Because of shoddy blocking Romo has missed all or significant parts of 12 games over the last two seasons. That does not include the other 6 games (at least) where Romo had to play hurt over the course of the last two years.

Because of poor blocking, Tony has been limited in more than half of the games over those last two seasons. That means that the effectiveness of Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, and Jason Witten has also been compromised. From a financial standpoint, that translates to approximately $20 million in salary that has been rendered ineffective.

There is also the possibility that Jerry Jones would prefer to have a high-scoring team over a stouter defensive unit. High-scoring teams tend to sell more tickets, have higher accessory sales (e.g., jerseys), garner more attention, and have more success than defensively stout units.

So assuming that very little difference exists between a great offensive guard and a great defensive player at a position of need, which way should the Cowboys lean?

Which way would you go?

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