Way We Hear It: Why did Dallas Cowboys pass on Steelers’ Week 1 standout, T.J. Watt?

September 11, 2017 GMT

Week 1 is no time to be second-guessing draft picks just breaking into the NFL, but it was hard not to notice T.J. Watt’s sterling debut — and what might have been had he gone a few picks earlier.

Watt ended up being selected 30th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers, beat out James Harrison for a starting job and was brilliant in his NFL debut against the Cleveland Browns. Only two other players in NFL history had turned in a two-sack, one-INT performance in their first NFL game before Watt did it in a 21-18 win. Watt played 62 of the team’s 66 defensive snaps, with the other four at right outside linebacker going to Harrison.

In retrospect, it’s surprising that the Dallas Cowboys did not select Watt 28th overall when they had the chance. They instead took Michigan’s Taco Charlton, who had a quiet debut (no stats registered) in 26 of the Cowboys’ 56 defensive snaps.

Let’s be clear: We are not saying that Watt is a star in waiting and that Charlton will be a bust. Doing so would be absurdly premature. Both players have 60 minutes of football under their belts. As one league evaluator joked Monday morning, “Let’s wait until Week 4 before we [second-guess the pick].”

But we at least can re-evaluate the reasons why the Cowboys might have passed on Watt — and why the Steelers were oh-so happy to gobble him up two picks later.

The Cowboys did plenty of work on Watt, bringing him in for a top-30 visit to Dallas, working him out separately and privately with members of the organization, attending his pro day and also meeting with him at the NFL scouting combine. (The Steelers met with Watt at his pro day and had a formal combine interview with him.)

But during their scouting process, the Cowboys deemed that they just didn’t see enough of Watt rushing from a three-point stance in college to accurately determine if he would be a good fit in Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 upfield scheme. Watt would have best fit as an end in their defense, the Cowboys believed, as opposed to the stand-up LB position he is playing for the Steelers and which he played more of in college at Wisconsin.

We were told that the scouting staff had similar discussions back in 2014 when the Cowboys sought pass-rush help early in the second round. That was Marinelli’s first year as coordinator, and the team took Demarcus Lawrence over Trent Murphy, who had some similarities to Watt as a prospect. Lawrence has fit well with the Cowboys. Murphy, who went 13 selections later, was a purer fit with Washington’s 3-4 scheme as an outside ’backer.

So the Cowboys didn’t downgrade Watt as much as they felt Charlton was a better system fit, and that very well might be true. If you watched preseason tape of both players, Charlton might actually have made more splash plays than Watt did. That’s another reason not to overreact to one regular-season game’s worth of tape before sizing the two players up.

The Steelers certainly feel like they got a gem, and the Cowboys are expecting Charlton to grow. He was a late bloomer at Michigan, and his best football might be ahead. This time last year, Charlton was not considered first-round material. Then again, perhaps neither was Watt after an injury-plagued Badgers career and a position switch from tight end.

Could both moves work out in the end? Surely. But there was some reasoning behind what the Cowboys did and why they passed on a player who had a fantastic first game in a totally different system.

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