Cowboys believe Taco Charlton's story is just beginning

Taco Charlton had three sacks in the season's final half, whetting the Cowboys' appetite for 2018. Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire

FRISCO, Texas -- Some minds were made up about Taco Charlton early in training camp when he struggled in one-on-one pass rush drills against backup offensive tackles that would not make a roster.

Others were made up early in the preseason when T.J. Watt, who was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers two spots after the Dallas Cowboys picked Charlton, had two sacks in his first game. Others at least waited until the regular season, when Charlton did not have more than one tackle in the first seven games or record a sack.

Charlton felt the eye rolls from training camp, preseason and early in the regular season but knew he could change minds only by what did on the field. And sometimes that wasn't enough.

By the end of the season, Charlton was playing his best football. He had three sacks in the final nine games and eight of his 11 quarterback pressures in the final four games.

"I would say keep the same anger. If you hated me then, keep on hating me," Charlton said in the final week of the regular season. "I'm going to continue to strive to get there. Don't become a fan now. I'm a person that who you see today is not who you'll see tomorrow. I'm going to continue to get better and be a great player in this league."

Charlton's final statistics are modest. The coaches credited him with 19 tackles, one tackle for loss and one forced fumble to go with his three sacks and 11 quarterback pressures.

Watt finished with seven sacks. Takkarist McKinley, the 26th overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons, had six. But Charlton had more sacks than Charles Harris, whom the Miami Dolphins picked No. 22 overall. Solomon Thomas, the third overall pick, had three sacks as well.

"I thought he got better as the year went on, started to make some impact plays, sacking the quarterback, making some plays sideline to sideline," coach Jason Garrett said of Charlton. "He'll continue to grow. He's in a good environment with the veteran players at that position and the coaching that he gets there. So he has to reflect back on this year and build on some of the good stuff and certainly continue to grow in a lot of different ways."

The Cowboys wanted more from Charlton in 2017. Charlton wanted more from himself in 2017. Pass-rushers usually need time. The Cowboys traded up to take DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round in 2014, and he did not record a regular-season sack. In 2012 the Cowboys drafted Tyrone Crawford in the third round, and he did not have a sack as a rookie.

Lawrence had 14.5 sacks in 2017. Crawford had four but played better than that total would indicate.

"Just having those two guys, seeing where they're at now, where they're making plays, doing great things, people ask me, 'Why don't you play that much?' Well, when a guy’s got 15 sacks in front of you, it's hard to get more reps,'" Charlton said. "But just learning from him, seeing his growth and even watching the film coach puts on of him and seeing where he was then and where he's at now, you can see the improvement that he's gotten in his game. I can just take it from those two and build on it and know the sky's the limit."

The Cowboys will need more from Charlton in 2018. Lawrence, who is scheduled to be a free agent but expected to return either with a long-term contract or on the franchise tag, will have to deal with more attention. David Irving, a restricted free agent, had seven sacks in eight games in 2017 and could play more on the interior next season.

Charlton has been through this process before. He did not record a sack in his first year at Michigan. In each of the next three seasons his sack totals increased, finishing with 9.5 sacks as a senior to go with 10 quarterback pressures.

"I definitely grew faster my rookie year than I did my freshman year at Michigan just because I have a lot more knowledge now of what to do to basically improve at a faster rate," Charlton said. "For a lot of defensive linemen, they've got to go through a learning curve. I feel with the way I'm playing (at the end of the season), if you put me back at the beginning of the season I could put up a lot of great numbers. I'll have to wait until next season to put up the numbers I want to put up."