Charles Widmaier: Dallas's supreme taco

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - 5:55pm

When University of Michigan’s cornerback Jeremy Clark was selected in the sixth round of the 2017 National Football League Draft by the New York Jets, the Michigan football team set a school record with eleven players being drafted. Ranging from Jabrill Peppers at No. 25 and Clark at No. 197 overall pick, numerous selections not only indicate the talent that Michigan had last season, but also that the impact of the 2016-2017 Michigan football team, which will be felt in the NFL for years to come. Some of these players will be granted the opportunity to make their teams compete for playing time immediately. Some will excel more than others. Tight end Jake Butt could compete instantly for a starting role in Denver; Ryan Glasgow could be a great defensive tackle for Cincinnati; Peppers will be playing all over the field for the Cleveland Browns.

While all of Michigan players are in positions to succeed, when looking back on this draft class, Taco Charlton will stand out from the rest. Taco Charlton’s combination of size, versatility and pass rushing skills will allow him to develop into both the star of the Dallas Cowboy’s defense, as well as the star from Michigan’s 2017 draft class.

When Taco Charlton went to the Dallas Cowboys at No. 28 overall pick, it seemed immediately like a perfect fit. Charlton was selected by a franchise that already had a good defense, but one that struggled at defensive end, where Charlton is projected to play. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke agrees, giving the pick an “A-” grade and saying that it “fills a need for Dallas, and at good value.” By being selected in the first round — which means the Cowboys view him as a potential cornerstone of their defense — as well as being selected by a team with a weakness at his position, Charlton will be given an opportunity to start from day one, a rare feat for a rookie.

What makes Charlton attractive to NFL general managers and coaches alike is his unique ability to both defend the run and rush the passer from the defensive end position. In today’s NFL, there are numerous specialists at defensive end; players who can play only on running downs and players who only come in to rush the quarterback in passing situations. But these specialists rarely can do both. Having a player like Charlton who fills both roles at once is a tremendous luxury for any NFL team to have. As a run stopper, Charlton possesses both ideal size (6’6”/277 lbs) as well as great technique. In this regard, Charlton has not only potential, but college statistics to back up his play. Last season at Michigan, he recorded 43 total tackles, including 13 tackles for loss. Given his body as well as his commitment to improving his technique, Charlton should replicate this success at the next level.

Despite Charlton’s ability as a run-stopper, he was drafted primarily for his ability as an edge rusher, one of the most important positions in the current pass-happy state of the NFL. As a pass rusher, Charlton’s 6-foot-6-inch frame sets him apart, as will his wide wingspan. NFL scouts rave about Charlton’s “freaky athletic traits.” These traits, combined with expert pass-rushing techniques, will give Charlton the edge over the NFL’s lumbering offensive linemen. In college, Charlton led Michigan with a team-high 9.5 sacks this past season.

Despite his prospects, the biggest issue scouts had with Charlton was that he appeared to still be growing into his body. While these complaints are accurate, it was critical for Charlton’s draft stock that he played his best football at the end of this past season. Charlton began the season as a solid contributor to a dominant defense; he ended it as one of the defense’s biggest player. In the last regular season game against Ohio State University, Charlton recorded nine total tackles and 2.5 sacks. One month later, Charlton added five more tackles and another sack in Michigan’s bowl game against Florida State University. Charlton made the biggest impact in Michigan’s two biggest games of the season, against the two best teams Michigan played, in the last two games of the season. The arc of his season illustrates not only his improvement while he grows into his enormous body, but also his willingness to work hard to improve his game and compete on the highest level.

While Charlton was Michigan’s most talented draft prospect this past season, he had good fortune in the draft, especially compared to some of Michigan’s other players. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s best athlete, found himself selected by the Cleveland Browns, one of the worst franchises in the sport. There, he will be in an environment that is unproven in developing players and he will likely be expected to perform at an elite level immediately. Given his inability to dominate at a single position and inexperience, these expectations could hold Peppers back. Another example is Jake Butt, who had a historic career as tight end for Michigan. However, his injury in the Orange Bowl, from which Butt’s recovery is uncertain, caused him to fall to Round 5 of the NFL draft. While he has an opportunity to earn playing time, doing so will be difficult as he will not be seen as a priority by the Broncos.

Charlton was selected at the perfect time to the perfect team. He was a first-round pick to a team with a need at his position and a team with the coaching and leadership that breeds success and development. Charlton’s talent, skills and work ethic, combined with this development will make a superstar in the NFL. He will undoubtedly outshine all of Michigan’s other prospects.