Taco Charlton couldn’t have envisioned a slower start to his rookie season. As a first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys, a team in need of pass rushers, Charlton entered with high expectations.
And he didn’t live up to them.
Charlton didn’t record a sack until Week 8, and finished with just three on the season. He ranked sixth on the team in quarterback pressures with 11, seven fewer than David Irving, who played in half the games (8), and four fewer than Benson Mayowa, who played in 14 games.
Charlton understands why some view his rookie season as a disappointment, even though he sees brighter days ahead.
"You’re a first-round pick for the Dallas Cowboys, so expectations are going to be high," Charlton said. "But it was more so I just had expectations for myself, and it started off slower than what I wanted. At the end, I started seeing the strides and seeing all the practice hours and how hard I was working starting to pay off.
"Going into Year 2, I’m stronger. I can hold my weight more. I’m faster. I’m more knowledgeable about the game, studying more moves and working a lot more moves. I’m ready to go and ready to prove what I can do in Year 2."
Charlton has shown strides early on this offseason. With DeMarcus Lawrence receiving "veterans days" during organized team activities, Charlton has been running with the first-team at left defensive end.
During Wednesday’s OTA, Charlton sniffed out a screen to running back Ezekiel Elliott and forced quarterback Dak Prescott to throw it into the ground.
Those are the type of impact plays Charlton and the coaching staff are hoping to see more of on Sundays.
"He's moving a little bit better right now," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "He's in better shape, that's for sure. I think everything will start to come. I know the more reps you keep doing and doing and doing, you're going to get better.
"He's out here every day, doesn't miss anything, and he works at it."
Charlton hopes that work translates to more sacks, too, in his second season.
"Definitely. I feel comfortable out there," Charlton said. "I feel ready to go. I feel good out there. I like how I’m moving around, playing lower, playing faster, not having to think as much.
"Each year, I’m going to continue to get better. That's how I’ve always been. I’ve always gotten better, better, better until I get to that point where I feel like I’m one of the best out there."
In his college career at Michigan, Charlton’s sack total rose from 3.5 to 5.5 to 10 in his final three seasons. He believes a similar trajectory could happen in the pros.
Plus, it usually takes pass rushers a few years to truly develop in the NFL. Lawrence, for instance, didn’t have a sack in seven games as a rookie but jumped to eight in his second season of 2015.
He endured an injury-plagued 2016 with just one sack, but emerged as one of the top pass rushers in the game with 14.5 last season.
Lawrence has been a solid role model for Charlton in their short time together; however, it could be viewed as somewhat detrimental to his growth. With Lawrence playing at such a high level, Charlton isn’t getting as many reps.
"Learning from D-Law was definitely a blessing, but playing behind him I wasn’t able to get as many snaps," Charlton said. "At Michigan, I played 60-70 snaps my last season, so I’m used to finding the groove of the game. Last season, some games I was lucky to get 20 snaps, so you’ve just got to catch that rhythm faster."
Added Lawrence: "I feel like Taco had a pretty good rookie season. Y’all take away the light that he was playing behind me so it wasn’t like he could get as many reps as he needed. This year, I feel like he’s going to come along and take you all by storm."