How Taco Charlton Spoiled Cowboys' 1st Round Resume

Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Will McClay has been the leader of the Cowboys draft room for six drafts now. Four first-round picks in his tenure — Zack Martin, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, and Leighton Vander Esch — have earned All-Pro honors. This past draft, they acquired another All-Pro player in Amari Cooper with the 27th overall pick. Needless to say, the Cowboys’ hit rate in the first is about as flawless as it gets.

But no team is perfect. In the 2017 NFL draft, the Dallas Cowboys had the 28th pick — with several players in mind. The Cowboys were set on drafting one of two positions with this pick — defensive end and cornerback. 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. That prompted Will McClay and the Dallas front office to pivot to Plan B.

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. Once again, Dallas was forced to look at other options.

The three names now in that discussion were Washington cornerback Kevin King, Wisconsin EDGE TJ Watt, and Michigan EDGE Taco Charlton.

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.

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.

Three years later, Charlton started just seven games for the Cowboys, turning in only four sacks. A healthy scratch for the first two games of the 2019 season, Dallas has now decided to release Charlton. Meanwhile, Kevin King has grown into a talented starting cornerback for the Green Bay Packers, while TJ Watt had 20 sacks in his first two seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers, asserting himself as one of the league’s top pass rushers.

For the first time in Will McClay’s career as the “head guy” in the war room, he followed the tune of the administration he took over for. The reason why McClay was brought in was because Dallas passed on a top-five player on their board in Florida defensive tackle Shariff Floyd during the 2013 NFL draft. Since then, McClay has been the brains and balance of this front office. If not for McClay, the Cowboys would have drafted Johnny Manziel instead of Zack Martin in 2014, just to name one of many examples. The construction of one of the NFL’s best rosters today is largely because of his work.

However, the 2017 NFL draft will forever be the black mark on Will McClay’s resume. It was the most off-brand move of his career. McClay preaches staying true to the board and not “window dressing” it. But by drafting Charlton, that is exactly what they did — because they passed on players they ranked higher in Watt and King.

This will undoubtedly serve as a lesson this front office will never forget, and despite having the best hit rate of any NFL team in the first round over the last six years, Will McClay is dead set on righting his biggest wrong.