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ESPN grades several Cowboys units harshly prior to free agency

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But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Cowboys will prioritize their offseason moves accordingly.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Clay of ESPN took it upon himself to grade the position groups of all 32 NFL teams in advance of free agency. Importantly, the 2019 free agents are not part of the position group grades, which means that the Cowboys edge rusher unit for example is graded without DeMarcus Lawrence.

Here are Clay’s grades for the entire league as of last week.

Per Clay’s grades, the Cowboys have some significant weaknesses heading into free agency next month. Those weaknesses include tight ends, defensive tackles, defensive ends, and safeties.

  • Tight ends: three-way tie with Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos for the 25th spot. Geoff Swaim’s pending free agency likely drove down the grades for the Cowboys, but probably not by much. Tight end is widely regarded as an offseason need for the Cowboys, so the ranking here shouldn’t surprise that much.
  • Defensive tackles: four-way tie for 21st with the Patriots, Colts, and Vikings. Given this peer group, perhaps DT is not as big of an offseason priority as many would have you believe.
  • Defensive ends: four-way tie for 25th with the Panthers, Ravens, and Buccaneers. Obviously, this is looking at the edge rushers without free agent DeMarcus Lawrence, but doesn’t yet include Randy Gregory’s suspension. If it wasn’t before, re-signing Lawrence is now the highest priority, and perhaps adding another defensive end along the way.
  • Safeties: Even though the Cowboys won’t lose a single 2018 start at safety to free agency, the Cowboys are ranked just T-23rd with the Rams, Panthers, Jaguars, and Broncos. If you consider that every team ranked below the Cowboys is going to lose significant 2018 starts to free agency (GB 12 starts, SF 15, TB 11, NYG 28, WAS 9), you could argue that the Cowboys’ safeties may rank last in the league if the pending free agents were included in the grade. The good news is that with the glut of free agent safeties set to hit the market this year, the Cowboys can go shopping to their heart’s content in free agency, as they’ll find options both at the high end of the market as well as in the penny-pinching nether regions of the market.

Sandwiched between a lackluster front four and a bad safety unit, Clay has the Cowboys tied for first at linebacker and tied for seventh at corner. On offense, Clay has the Cowboys tied for the top spot at running back and O-line, and has middling grades for the wide receivers and quarterback.

For the most part, this assessment dovetails well with what many perceive to be the Cowboys’ draft or free agency needs.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Cowboys will prioritize their offseason moves accordingly.

A hotly debated topic in management, leadership, and organizational theory is whether you should invest your finite resources into fixing weaknesses or building strengths.

For some reason, the human brain is wired to focus on fixing weaknesses. Think about your latest New Year’s resolution. Odds are it was something like quitting cigarettes, losing weight, spending more time with the family, exercising more, eating healthier - all resolutions that address a perceived weakness. Very few people, for example, resolve to be “even more awesome next year,” outside of perhaps Barney Stinson.

Yet when we look at successful companies, successful leaders, or successful organizations, they are almost always successful because they have very specific strengths that make them better than their competitors.

Management theory holds that to remain successful, you need to invest your available resources, be it time, money, managerial talent - or in the case of NFL teams, cap space and draft capital - to further build your strengths. The only exception to this rule is if you are dealing with a potentially fatal flaw. Such a fatal flaw needs to be addressed with the highest priority, as it has the potential to render all your strengths moot. If, for example, your company is unable to invoice customers, you had better fix that fast, or you’ll be bankrupt in no time, regardless of how successful you are selling your products.

Sure, every successful company also has weaknesses. But being below average in a given area when compared to a global norm could still mean that you are performing well enough in that area it doesn’t become a detriment to your strengths.

The offseason, when free agency and the draft are the next big items on the NFL agenda, is when we as fans tend to obsess over a team’s weaknesses and devise costly free agency schemes and elaborate mock draft fantasies about how to address them. But we don’t talk about our team’s strengths a lot. In fact, we may not even be sure what our team’s strengths are.

So as we review the list of Cowboys weaknesses proposed by Clay (TE, DT, DE, S), which of these weaknesses would you classify as a fatal flaw that needs to be addressed with the highest priority?

To me, the ho-hum TE room doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Sure, it would be nice to have a Jason Witten in his prime in that room, but it feels like the Cowboys did okay overall with the TEs they had. Same thing goes for DTs and safeties. Sure, an upgrade would be nice, but if you had to prioritize cap dollars and draft capital, I wouldn’t invest too much into those positions.

But defensive end feels like a different animal. If you can’t rush the passer from either side, that begins to feel like a fatal flaw. So re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence has got to be a very high priority, as is finding a pass rusher for the weak side.

After that, it’s a question of building strengths vs fixing weaknesses. And if I were the Cowboys, I’d be looking to build on my strengths.

First, I’d look at wide receiver, where the likely departures of Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams will deplete what was formerly a strong unit. Similarly, I’d look at what’s needed to maintain the long-term dominance of the O-line. I’d also wonder how I can maintain my strength at running back without breaking the bank. I might even look at what I can do to further build the cornerback unit, which according to Clay is tied for the seventh-best unit in the league.

And once I have all of that figured out, I’d look at what resources I have left in terms of cap space and draft capital to address some of the weaknesses on the team.

What would you do first, fix the weaknesses or build the strengths?