With the 28th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys select ... Taco Charlton. While there are plenty of examples of teams such as the Dallas Cowboys getting skewered for a draft decision, few have and will continue to haunt them like the decision to turn their back on T.J. Watt to grab Charlton out of Michigan. It was initially a decision Vice President of Player Personnel Will McClay stood in front of the train for, but there were always loud whispers emanating from within the organization that it wasn't nearly as much McClay pounding the table for Charlton as it was the coaching staff -- primarily defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
The Cowboys are now readily admitting that was not the case, at least not entirely (if at all). Team exec Stephen Jones now publicly places the blame on Marinelli, in a Friday interview with 105.3FM the Fan. When asked if the Cowboys outright regret selecting Charlton over Watt, Jones was unequivocal.
"Absolutely," he said. "You always do that if you're truthful and you're honest. The harder part of that is he was in serious contention [to be our pick]. I think the biggest issue was we were playing a 4-3 there with Rod [Marinelli] and Rod was concerned about how he'd hold up against the run in the 4-3 -- didn't have that same concern with Taco [Charlton]."
With Watt now readying to head to AT&T Stadium to deepen the Cowboys regret, Jones wishes he had a mulligan.
"Obviously, if you had that to do all over again, I wish we would have [selected Watt]," he said. "And of course he would fit in probably better in some of the things we're trying to do now with [Mike] Nolan and our defense. So, you know, he's obviously a great player. He's already on his way to a great career, not unlike his brother, and congratulate the Steelers for getting him."
Sources told CBS Sports at the time the more specific concern from the Cowboys was in the size of Watt, and not necessarily his talent level. He'd go on to deliver seven sacks as a rookie followed by 13 and 14.5 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, en route to both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in both seasons, after having been named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team in 2017. Through seven games this season, he's already amassed a team-high 6.5 sacks, and is on pace to deliver a career-best year that continues his climb in that category.
In stark contrast, the Cowboys released Charlton in 2019 after logging just four sacks in his first two seasons, and amid a list of attitude issues that clashed with the very coaching staff that gave him the nod over Watt. He'd land with the Miami Dolphins via waiver claim and deliver five sacks in 2019, but head coach Brian Flores cut him loose following the season, with speculation those same issues had begun to crop up in South Florida. The Kansas City Chiefs would then sign Charlton in 2020, where he professed his "foot is on the gas for this one", logging two sacks and 89 snaps through six games active with zero starts.
"We really liked T.J. as well," McClay said in May 2017, during a maelstrom of backlash for the Cowboys decision. "A lot of times people will see the [scouting] combine numbers and say a guy is explosive. There were a number of players that were in this draft that had great workout numbers. We watch the tape.
"I think T.J. Watt's deal was we felt like he could potentially play defensive end for us, but it was a projection. It was a projection of a guy that had converted from tight end, now he's going to try to play defensive end in this scheme, and probably a better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker because they do different jobs than 4-3 defensive ends. Not to say that he wouldn't will himself to being [a 4-3 end]."
So, in essence, Jones is echoing the same sentiment as McClay in 2017, but with the twist that it was Marinelli -- now defensive coordinator for the Las Vegas Raiders -- who pounded the table for Charlton. What makes matters worse in assessing the pick both then and now is in how McClay and the Cowboys readily projected Watt to have a great NFL career, just not in Dallas.
"He's going to be a very good NFL player," McClay said at the time. "But when you put all those things together and you're making a first round pick, you want to go for the guy that has done it, that you think has the potential and the upside to play the way that you want to play."
With Charlton being a wash and Watt suiting up to brutalize the Cowboys in Week 9, it's long been clear now whose upside was greater.