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The Taco saga: Why he was drafted in the first place, and why the Cowboys were smart to let him go

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Taco time is officially over, but how did all of this go down?

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Taco Charlton era is officially over in Dallas as the team officially parted ways with their 2017 first-round draft pick on Wednesday. The Cowboys front office has such an incredible track record in landing star talent on Day 1 that it brings about a little disappointment when one of them doesn’t pan out. Of course, that doesn’t happen very often as Charlton joins Morris Claiborne as the only two first-round players the team has drafted in the last 10 drafts that didn’t turn into All Pro’s. Wow. Marinate on that a little.

While Claiborne didn’t live up to what the Cowboys paid for him in terms of draft cost, part of that was injury related. Even with that, Claiborne played out his rookie contract as well as another prove-it season with the Cowboys before signing with the New York Jets in 2017. But unlike Claiborne, Charlton couldn’t even make it through his rookie deal as the team finally decided to move on from him, freeing him at last.

The whole Taco ordeal has been an unusual situation that was met with controversy right from the get-go. Between under-performing on the field and pity-party tweets, his days in Dallas have been numbered for a while now. But how did all of this go down? Let’s take one last stroll down TCharlton’s time with Dallas and review what’s transpired.

Leading up to the draft

Will McClay and company had mapped out the landscape of the talent in the 2017 draft, and determined it was filled with several quality players at defensive end and defensive back. This was a welcoming feeling considering the team had needs in both of those areas. The team had just recently spent premium draft picks on edge rushers, but both players brought about a dark cloud of uncertainty. DeMarcus Lawrence was coming off a season where he only had one sack as he played hurt for most of the year. The team used a third-round pick in 2014 to move up in the second round to get him, so it was a little unsettling that after three seasons, he had yet to emerge into the pass rusher the team was hoping for when they drafted him. They also selected Randy Gregory in the second round of 2015, but his situation was even murkier. In 2016, Gregory was coming off a season where he had been suspended for 14 games, and in January of 2017 he learned that he he was facing a year-long suspension the following season. The Cowboys needed help at defensive end.

Not only did they have a need on the edge, but the team also let all of their veteran defensive backs walk in free agency. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox all signed with other teams. The front office knew the 2017 draft class was rich with talent in the secondary and were planning on replenishing this group with fresh, young talent

The draft process

When Charlton was selected by the Cowboys, it was met with mixed feelings. Many had their own favorite player they were hoping for, and in most cases Taco wasn’t it. Maybe you liked Takkarist McKinley (raises hand). Maybe you were a big T.J. Watt guy (those guys are easy to spot because they’ll forever remind you). Or maybe you wanted one of the top cornerbacks like Kevin King.

NFL Draft analyst Jonah Tuls takes us along the thought process of the Cowboys inside the war room as all the action was going down...

Best case scenario - take a top corner

Originally, the team had its crosshairs set on USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, as owner Jerry Jones fell in love with his playmaking ability as both a man coverage defender and punt returner. However, the Tennessee Titans surprised the Cowboys by taking Jackson with the 18th overall pick.

With Jackson coming off the board earlier than they were hoping, the Cowboys war room had to switch gears, and that meant targeting a defensive end.

Backup plan - take one of their top edge rushers

Plan B was centered around defensive ends Charles Harris and Takkarist McKinley, both of whom Dallas brought to The Star for a pre-draft visit. Harris went off the board to Miami at 22, and the Falcons traded up ahead of the Cowboys at 26 to take McKinley.

The team was hoping one of these edge rushers fell to them at 28, and one would have if the Atlanta Falcons didn’t finagle a deal to jump in front of Dallas. With both those guys now off the board, the team again had to look at their next best options. The next three players on their board were CB Kevin King, OLB T.J. Watt, and DE Taco Charlton.

On the clock - Passing on a first-round graded player

Starting with King, it was clear that the Cowboys fell in love with his length and ball skills as a boundary corner. In fact, King was the only first-round grade of the three in this discussion, so essentially, he was the highest player left on their board. However, because Dallas believed there would be better depth on Day 2 for defensive backs than pass rushers, the decided to pass on the 6’3 cornerback.

The Cowboys were right about the depth of defensive backs in this draft, and they were able to land two great value players in Chidobe Awuzie (second round) and Jourdan Lewis (third round). On one hand, it’s always smart to maximize your draft haul, and if the team feels it can wait and still get a quality player from the same position later, then why not go after a different position with their early pick? But on the flip side, is it wise to pass on the higher-graded player? The Cowboys choosing to pass on King left them with a tough choice between their two top remaining edge rushers.

One the clock - making the wrong choice

This led Dallas to decide between Watt and Charlton — which created a divide between scouts and coaches leading up to the draft. Some scouts liked Watt more than Charlton because he showed more juice and bend as a pass rusher, while McClay and the coaches favored Charlton’s length and value as a run defender. In fact, the war room concluded Watt was the better overall player, but that Charlton was the better overall fit. Thus, the Cowboys turned the card in for the Michigan defensive end.

The Cowboys have certain things they look for in their players. Charlton possessed the traits they love, and this team places an emphasis on pass rushers who can also defend the run, so you can see the appeal. But the team was so fixated on what fits best with what they want that it caused them to pass up a better talent.

What’s happened since

Charlton had trouble earning snaps his rookie season, which is understandable. Everyone was pleasantly surprised when Lawrence had his breakout year with 14.5 sacks, earning All-Pro honors. They also had 2016’s reigning team sack leader Benson Mayowa out on the edge. And when you add in part-time edge rushers Tyrone Crawford and David Irving, playing time was scarce, especially for a rookie who is still developing his game. Taco never started, but played in every game and logged 399 snaps. He finished the season with three sacks.

Things became even tougher for Charlton his second year in the league. Tank and Crawford still led the charge in playing time, but now he had to compete with Randy Gregory for reps. All three of those guys saw more action than Charlton as he only played in two more snaps than he did his rookie season. Even rookie Dorance Armstrong was cutting in to his playing time. It appeared that he started falling out of favor with the coaching staff as Charlton was a healthy scratch for a few games during the year. He finished with just one sack on the season.

Entering the 2019 season, Lawrence received a five-year, $105 million contract. Gregory has been suspended again, but the team traded for Robert Quinn to play opposite Tank. They also signed Kerry Hyder in free agency. Suddenly, the Cowboys had a very deep edge rushing group, and it made us first ponder the idea of trading Charlton before the draft to gain some extra draft resources and help strengthen another area on the roster. Of course, nothing happened and the team ended up drafting two more defensive ends in Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks. And when training camp rolled around, there were so many appealing options that once again the notion to trade Charlton entered our thoughts. This time, we even set a Week 3 deadline as it marked the return of Quinn, who started the season serving a two-game suspension.

Taco was inactive for the first two games of the season, and it was becoming more and more clear that the team was ready to move on from him. The Cowboys tried to find a trade partner for Charlton, but there were no takers. People claim a change of scenery may do him wonders, but if he can’t find success under the coaching of Rod Marinelli, that has to be a concern. So, it really shouldn’t be all that surprising that not even a single team was willing to part with some late-round draft capital to get him.

The Cowboys needed to make a roster move to make room for Quinn, but did it really have to be Charlton that got the ax? Was he really the least talented player on the roster? Probably not, but the team didn’t want to cut loose some of their young prospects. Players like Devin Smith and Luke Gifford have already turned heads so they’re not going anywhere. And when you listen to all the positive things being said about Joe Jackson and Brandon Knight, the team just doesn’t want to turn these guys away simply just to give Charlton more time. Drafting Charlton in the first place wasn’t a good move, but credit the front office for not compounding the mistake by keeping him around, resulting in other potential contributors being released.