Rookie Taco Charlton battles highs, lows at Cowboys camp

OXNARD, Calif. -- Taco Charlton dug his cleats into the grass and put his right hand down to complete his menacing three-point stance. Shoulder pads on and helmet strapped tight, Charlton had his first chance to showcase his skills in full pads as a member of the Dallas Cowboys during the first days of training camp.

The 6-foot-6-inch, 273-pound defensive end lined up across from offensive tackle La'El Collins. Collins was celebrating his 24th birthday with a two-year, $15.4 million contract he signed with Dallas the day before. After facing Charlton in pass-rushing drills, he had one more reason to celebrate.

Both players fired off the line on the coaches' command. Charlton tried to get around his opposition with a spin move, but Collins didn't bite. He stayed in front of Charlton and practically pulled a chair out from under him as the rookie defensive end plummeted to the turf.

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"I'm not trying to hurt my guys. I'm not going to hurt them," Collins said. "But if I feel something, I'm going to react naturally."

Collins' natural reaction was to put Charlton on his backside. He's already proving to the Cowboys that the contract extension was worth it. As for Charlton, he's trying to prove the first-round pick the Cowboys spent on him in this year's draft was worth it, too. He's off to a wobbly start.

To Charlton's credit, he's battling an offensive line that many deem to be the best in the league. He called Collins "one of the better tackles out there." But Charlton didn't solely credit Collins for his tumble in the one-on-one. He said he had trouble trying not to be too eager with the pads on for the first time.

"You want to go so fast and sometimes you just got to keep your feet under you just because you want to go and hit someone so much," Charlton said. "Once we get used to these pads on and start getting after it more and more, we're going to be under more control and be able to work on our moves and different things like that."

Charlton better get his feet under him quickly. The Cowboys have him listed on the right side of the defensive line on their depth chart, which means he'll see plenty of four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith as training camp unfolds. Smith said he's ready to take on Charlton and anybody else he faces, as he's done throughout his now seven-year career.

"You're always willing to see how these young guys develop as the camp goes," Smith said. "I'm pretty excited to see how it goes. I'm excited to go against all our D-ends. They all have something to bring to the table."

Despite his early struggles, Charlton said he won't back down either.

"Going against the best is going to make you perform," Charlton said. "I'm not a guy who likes to get bullied or likes to get beat every time. I'm definitely very competitive, so it's going to push me."

Charlton also reverberated Smith's notion in saying there are plenty of defensive ends on the roster who are ready to get to the opposing quarterback every Sunday. By spending the No. 30 overall pick on Charlton, the Cowboys believe he could be one of them. So too do some of his teammates.

"Taco, he's bringing it," fifth-year defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. "He's got a lot in his move bucket. He pulls it out. We're happy to have that. We need that. He's a pass-rush guy, so he can get to the quarterback. And that's what we need."

Defensive tackle David Irving recorded three sacks in a two-game stretch in wins over Tampa Bay and Detroit at the end of last season. He'll miss the first four games of 2017 after being suspended for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy. Irving's absence leaves a void, but he thinks Charlton can fill it.

"He can make a huge impact," Irving said. "I think he will. He's athletic, he's big, he's quick, he's strong. He's going to acclimate. He's going to be nice."

Dallas needs someone to be the edge rusher the team has lacked since DeMarcus Ware departed after the 2013 season. Ware totaled double-digit sack numbers in seven straight seasons in Dallas. In the past three seasons, not a single Cowboys player has accomplished that feat.

Young rushers like Crawford, Demarcus Lawrence, Damontre Moore, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper and Charlton would all love to be the next D-Ware. Crawford is the oldest of the bunch, and he's only 27. The other four defensive ends are all 25 or younger. Youth often translates to passion, and at the end of the third practice in Oxnard, that fire was on display.

Charlton found himself in a shoving match with Dan Skipper, an undrafted guard out of Arkansas. All eyes fixated upon the two rookies as they exchanged blows above the belt. Charlton had reason to be frustrated having lost his duel with Collins an hour or so earlier. But after fellow defensive end Damontre Moore pulled him out of the scrum, Charlton likened the altercation to a simple display of "drive" and "competition." Moore, who slapped Charlton's helmet and patted him on the stomach in encouragement, used similar words to describe him.

"He's constantly learning, he's constantly asking questions to get better," Moore said. "For me, I'm really impressed with the work he's put in. As long as he keeps up his passion and his drive, it's going to be a really good thing, and he's going to have a really long career and be pretty impressive."

Charlton would like to get his first season under his belt before he speculates on a lengthy career. For now, he said it's all about helping a young defensive line impact games in ways that lead to victories.

"I believe we're very talented," Charlton said. "I think we have a chance to prove that this year. ... So I feel like the sky's the limit. It's just a matter of going out there and showing it."

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