How Close Did the Cowboys Come to Drafting TJ Watt?


Getty Images T.J. Watt, outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

On Sunday Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt will face the Dallas Cowboys for the first time in his illustrious career. But it’s a reminder that he could easily be playing for the Cowboys these days, if not for a fateful decision by the Dallas football brain trust.

Entering the 2017 NFL Draft the Cowboys held the 28th overall pick and were in need of pass rush help, much like the Steelers were in the market for an outside linebacker.

As it happens, the Cowboys hosted T.J. Watt for a pre-draft visit, along with University of Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton (6-foot-6, 270 pounds), among many other college defensive end prospects.

In the end, the Cowboys decided to select Charlton over Watt, but apparently it was a close call.

Earlier this week, Cowboys Vice President Stephen Jones appeared on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas and admitted that Watt was in “serious contention” to become the Cowboys’ first-round pick, adding, “I wish we would’ve done that.”

Why the Cowboys Drafted Taco Charlton Instead of T.J. Watt

As for why the Cowboys chose Charlton over Watt, the team’s director of college and pro personnel, Will McClay, revealed what the organization was thinking when he met with the media shortly after the 2017 NFL Draft came to an end. It seems that Dallas believed Charlton was a better match for its 4-3 defensive scheme, while Watt was seen as a better fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme like Pittsburgh’s.

“We felt like he could potentially play defensive end for us,” said McClay, speaking about Watt, “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.

“[Watt] is going to be a very good NFL player,” added McClay. “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.”

Taco Charlton’s NFL Career

Charlton went on to appear in 27 games (seven starts) for the Cowboys over two seasons but provided relatively little production during that time, responsible for just 46 total tackles (28 solo), with four sacks, eight tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

He was waived by the Cowboys in September 2019 and claimed by the Miami Dolphins, for whom he appeared in ten games, producing 21 total tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles.

Charlton is currently playing on a one-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, for whom he has seven total tackles (four solo), along with two sacks and one forced fumble.

T.J. Watt Remembers Draft Night

Asked to recall draft night in 2017, T.J. Watt recently told ESPN’s Ed Werder that he received a phone call while the Dallas Cowboys were on the clock, which prompted one of his family members to place a Cowboys hat on his head.

But unbeknownst to his family, the call was from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who advised Watt of Pittsburgh’s intent to select him.

Minutes later, that’s exactly what the Steelers did:

T.J. Watt’s NFL Career

Fast forward to today and it’s clear that T.J. Watt is once again a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, this after finishing third in DPOY voting in 2019 after New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones.

Thus far this season Watt has recorded 25 tackles (20 solo) and he leads the Steelers with 6.5 sacks. He also had an interception in the season-opener against the New York Giants and won Defensive Player of the Month honors for September 2020. It’s no surprise that he has continued to excel. Prior to this season he put the rest of the NFL on notice, talking about how he wanted to be a ‘game wrecker.

Over the course of his career, Watt has started 54 games, during which time he has 202 total tackles (145 solo), with 41 sacks, 48 tackles for loss, 91 quarterback hits, 21 passes defensed, 15 forced fumbles, four recovered fumbles and four interceptions.

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