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Will the suspension of Randy Gregory open the door for the emergence of Taco Charlton?

More opportunities should be coming for the Cowboys former first-round pick, but can he take advantage of them?

Jacksonville Jaguars v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys were graced with 14 games from Randy Gregory last season. That wouldn’t be anything to brag about except the young edge rusher had only played in 14 games in the previous three seasons combined. After spending most of his NFL career suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, it looked like things might be taking a turn for the better when Gregory was reinstated last season. But alas, any thought of him being the impact pass rusher the team was hoping is looking bleak after learning of his most recent suspension.

Things do not look good for Gregory, but what does this mean for the Cowboys? Our own Tom Ryle offered up his thoughts on the subject as the team starts looking ahead to the future. The Gregory suspension certainly throws a wrench into the Cowboys defensive end situation. The organization has been trying to build a formidable defensive line for years. Ever since DeMarcus Ware departed in the offseason of 2014, the team has taken a young collegiate edge rusher in each of the last five drafts.

Of all these players, Taco Charlton is the only first-round draft resource the team has used for a defensive end. The Cowboys have been outstanding making picks early in the draft.

Charlton is essentially the outlier right now. He gets a lot of criticism because he hasn’t manifested into an impact player, especially compared to all these other guys. And with every additional sack T.J. Watt gets, people are quick to remind fans of what could’ve been. Indeed, Watt has been outstanding. In hindsight, he’s clearly the better player. Watt has 20 sacks in his career already, trailing only Myles Garrett by half a sack for all edge rushers drafted that year. Garrett was selected number one overall in the draft.

If you take the Watt factor out of the mix, you can’t really be that critical of the Taco pick. Other defensive linemen available that fans were high on like: Tyus Bowser, Tarell Bashem, and Malik McDowell - haven’t amounted to anything. All three were pre-draft visits for the Cowboys. McDowell, who was selected 35th overall by the Seattle Seahawks never played a snap in the NFL. He was waived the following season.

Some wanted the Cowboys to roll the dice on Rueben Foster despite the high-risk, red flag on his character. Foster looked like a steal for the San Francisco 49ers, but trouble kept following him and he was released after just one season in the NFL.

And finally, there were those who wanted the Cowboys to take a cornerback with their first round pick. Kevin King was a popular name that kept coming up. The front office had a plan and knew this draft class was deep so they waited. As it turned out, that was a smart move. There were 12 cornerbacks taken on Day 2 of the draft and based on approximate value scores from Pro Football Reference, Chidobe Awuzie is the best one of the group so far. Even Jourdan Lewis turns out to be a great selection in comparison to the other corners selected.

So the problem with the Taco pick was simply - he wasn’t Watt. Of course, neither were any of the other seven edge rushers selected in the first round of the draft with the lone exception of Myles Garrett. So if the Cowboys picked the wrong pass rusher, so did several other teams.

It’s been a rough first couple years for Charlton. After a slow start his rookie season that many can forgive, he essentially dropped off the grid in 2018. He was sixth in the defensive line rotation in terms of playing time, which included 401 snaps (39%) for the year. There were even a handful of games where Charlton was inactive as a healthy scratch. That’s not what you want to see from a first-round pick.

Charlton possesses good traits that can make him an effective pass rusher. The combination of size and athleticism is a good start, especially that extra length he’s got. He also gets off the snap extremely quick, which is a must for a Rod Marinelli pass rusher. His burst and bend are definitely skills that can be honed into a strong player along the defensive line.

Most of Charlton’s issues are mental. He’s got long arms, but doesn’t use them effectively to thwart off blockers. His pass rushing arsenal is limited and we’re all tired of seeing the Taco-spin move. But more than anything, he lacks pure nastiness. He’s got what I like to refer to as the “Dwight Howard nice-guy complex.” The talent is there, but the intensity isn’t. That’s not to suggest that he too soft, but you got DeMarcus Lawrence on the other side trying to steal the quarterback’s soul.

If Gregory is not in the mix this upcoming season, there’s going to be opportunities for someone to see more action. Charlton seems first in line, but he’s got last year’s draft pick Dorance Armstrong breathing down his neck. Taco is going to have to battle if he wants to earn his place on this team. The good news is that he still has the upside to be a good player if he can just put things together. Maybe the Gregory suspension will give him new life. NFL careers shouldn’t be taken for granted and if Charlton doesn’t turn the corner soon, his might not have much of a shelf life.

Let’s be honest - there were some who thought that Lawrence wasn’t going to amount to a whole lot after his first three seasons in the league. Granted, he battled injuries, but there were a lot of fans who were ready to throw in the towel with him. Man, what a mistake that would’ve been. The following season, Tank had 14.5 sacks. Sometimes when a player turns a corner, things can happen in a hurry. Let’s hope we see things turn around for Charton in 2019.