Taco Charlton is going to have to wait for a while.
Coming off of a season in which he finished the year on injured reserve, the 26-year-old defensive end is likely going to need a patient approach to the upcoming NFL offseason for multiple reasons—one of which will be about getting healthy and showing teams he’s ready to hit the field for the 2021 season. But given the up-and-down nature of his career this far, Charlton is also going to be waiting for the same reason other lower-tier free agents have done so every spring and summer.
Last year, the Chiefs signed Charlton shortly after he came in for a free agent visit immediately following the NFL Draft. It’s clear that the team had him on a short list of potential signings, depending on how the draft played out. While the team did add Mike Danna to the mix in the fifth round, the team felt they had enough space to bring in Charlton to compete for a roster spot. It was a risk that paid off.
To Charlton’s credit, he beat out Breeland Speaks and Devaroe Lawrence among others for one of the final active roster spots on the 53-man roster for the Chiefs in ’20. It was a sign that the potential that made him a former first-round choice of the Dallas Cowboys was still there, and that the Chiefs believed they could turn him into a positive contributor along the way.
Early on, Charlton rewarded the team’s efforts with some reps that showed definite promise. He played his first snaps on defense in Week 2 against the L.A. Chargers, and Charlton had his first sack of the season in that game. He didn’t play again until Week 4, and he added a second sack then. Overall, in limited snaps over 7 games, Charlton had 4 quarterback hits and 2 sacks in only 90 combined snaps on defense.
Unfortunately, Charlton fractured his ankle at midseason against the Carolina Panthers and ended what was a promising campaign for a Super Bowl contender. Just like that, his season was over and he was forced to consider his future.
The case for coming back
The Chiefs are very thin along the defensive line, especially at end, although at this stage, it’s not a concern given that we’re six months or more from meaningful football being played. However, that means Chiefs Kingdom is going to see a number of transactions at this position.
Alex Okafor is hitting free agency after restructuring his contract last season for the Chiefs. After an injury-plagued season, it’s hard to imagine him returning to the team. Tanoh Kpassagnon is also going to have a chance to hit the open market for the first time, and his second-round pedigree as well as his measurable are going to make some team pay for the potential. Charlton is the third defensive end scheduled to hit the market.
Bringing Charlton back could continue the low-cost experiment they began last year, and it would even give Charlton another chance to make good in a system that seemed to be working for him in rotational duty. If he’s already familiar with the defense, he could step up in the face of such a need and it’s possible he could be better positioned the second time around to claim playing time.
In addition, the whole “former first rounder” label hangs around for a reason. Charlton was a one-year wonder at Michigan who needed considerable more time and experience to learn the mental side of the game and develop his technique. It’s possible that Charlton is a late developer rather than a bust. Remember just last year, the Dolphins enjoyed a banner season from Emmanuel Ogbah who leveraged a nice comeback year with the Chiefs into a nice deal after being labeled a bust as a second round pick in Cleveland.
The case for letting go
The NFL floor isn’t exactly littered with Charlton types, but he’s also not a unicorn among free agents. Every team has former early draft picks who, for one reason or another, failed to reward those investments. Breeland Speaks is still bouncing around the NFL hoping to do just what Charlton is/was doing with the Chiefs. For many players, it takes the right time, some luck, a lot of health, and the perfect system in order to succeed.
Therefore, the Chiefs might have a list of players who fit this sort of low-risk mold, players who could reward the team with productive pass rushing snaps for a minimal investment. And some of those very players might not be coming off a fractured ankle.
The likelihood of a return: 50 percent
At this point, Charlton feels like a player who could easily re-sign with the Chiefs, but it’s also true that the team could just as easily decide to move on. Any deal is going to be for a single season and likely for the veteran minimum. For Charlton, it would be yet another chance to shed the label bust. For the Chiefs it would bring back a familiar face on the cheap at a position that needs live bodies. Unless the Chiefs really weren’t impressed with what they saw last season, it kind of feels like a “why not?” situation.