March 14, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
INDIANAPOLIS -- Taco Charlton didn't necessarily save the best for last. He wasn't saving anything. But injuries and playing on a very deep defensive line at the University of Michigan contributed to Charlton having by far his best season as a senior, and playing his absolute best in the final three games of 2016.
Charlton had four starts with nine sacks, 14.5 tackles for lost yardage and 51 tackles during his first three seasons.
Those combined numbers were either exceeded or approached in his final season alone. Charlton, a 6-foot-6, 277-pound defensive end, made 11 starts with 9.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles-for-loss and 43 tackles.
When asked to explain that great showing, he pointed to first-year Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown.
"A lot of the credit I give to Don Brown," said Charlton. "He gave me the reins and said, 'This is going to be your spot. You're going to be free.' And I'm going to be playing my game. He just let me play my game, and from Day One he had faith in what I could do. He believed in me when he watched film of my junior year ... He let me show my talent and I made sure not to let him down."
Charlton also watched videotape of top NFL pass-rushers to study how they used their arms and incorporated those lessons learned into his play. That enabled him to take full advantage of his height and superb ranginess compounded by a 34 1/4-inch arm length measured at the combine.
"I looked at guys who had similar body types who learned how to use their leverage," said Charlton. "I studied a lot of game film."
He made 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 19 tackles in his final three games against Indiana, Ohio State and Florida State.
When asked what he does best at the recent NFL Combine, Charlton said, "You watch my last two games and it will show you right there."
He took considerable pride in how he played against the two best teams he faced, the Buckeyes and Seminoles. Both of those top 10 teams had to double-team him. He gave them fits.
That strong finish has vaulted Charlton to the front of NFL Draft projections, and he could be the first Wolverine selected, possibly among the top 10 overall picks.
"It's all from the media," said Charlton, "and I'm happy to see all the hard work has paid off, and people do recognize how good of a player I am and how good I will be. This is just the beginning, and it's just been a tip of the iceberg on how good I'll be. I'll get better with the more football I play.
"So, I love the recognition I'm getting. But I'm not satisfied. I won't be satisfied until they're saying, 'He's one of the best people out there (in the NFL).' Nothing's promised to you, and you have to keep working hard."
This NFL Draft is deep in elite defensive ends, and the mock draft of four NFL.com analysts had Charlton going between No. 7 and No. 30 overall in round one. He was asked what separates him from others at his position.
"The best thing about my game is probably my pass-rushing ability," said Charlton. "I want to be unstoppable. I'm somebody who won't stop until I feel like I'm one of the best out there ... I have size, speed and skill.
"I'm versatile. I play a little bit of every position. I play inside and outside. I play heavy, I play light. My arsenal's pretty wide. I can stab, I can bull, I can spin, I can speed rush. The arsenal I have and the combination of positions I've played -- three-tech)nique, four-tech(nique), five-tech(nique), weak side end -- all of those things add up to separate me a little bit."
Charlton stood out with a 33-inch vertical jump but also ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds, bench pressed 225 pounds 25 times, and had an 116-inch (nine feet, eight inches) broad jump.
NFL.com gave him a 6.58 rating after the combine, and that's in the range designated as having a "chance to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player." For comparison sake, Wolverines safety prospect Jabrill Peppers was assigned a 6.14 rating that predicted: "Should become an instant starter."
Michigan coach Greg Mattison compared Charlton to Cincinnati Bengals pass-rusher Carlos Dunlap, a member of the Gators' 2009 national champions who has 57 sacks in seven NFL seasons.
"Coach Mattison was my D-Line coach and he actually coached Dunlap at Florida," said Charlton, "and he always talked about how I reminded him of Dunlap. He's a guy who never stops."
The Wolverines led the combine with 14 invitations, and Charlton credited head coach Jim Harbaugh, who took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, with development.
"Everybody started to fear Michigan again," said Charlton. "Fourteen of us are here and we had a lot of guys who aren't here who are talented. Thanks to Coach Harbaugh and Coach (Brady) Hoke, we have a lot of NFL-caliber players.'
Hoke, formerly the Wolverines' head coach and now the defensive line coach at the University of Tennessee, recruited these combine players and Harbaugh and his staff coached them for two seasons.
Charlton said he would enjoy playing for Harbaugh's brother, John, on the Baltimore Ravens if they selected him.
"He has that same passion for football," said Charlton, who met John when he attended Michigan practices.
NFL.com's Lance Zierlein has the Ravens taking Charlton with the No. 7 overall pick in his mock draft, and that is the area where teams will begin thinking seriously about taking him.
Charlton's stock rose at the end of the season, when he said he was finally feeling closer to "100 percent" after missing two early-season games with a high ankle sprain. It was feared that the injury could cost him five games, but he spent five hours daily in the trainer's room and on various rehabilitation options to speed his recovery.
"I wasn't really healthy until a month ago," Charlton said. "I was probably at 80 percent most of the way, and getting close to 100 percent for the last two games was a good feeling. I showed what I can do when I'm completely healthy."
Charlton had an impressive showing at the combine, where there was definitely a maize and blue feeling with the Wolverines having more defensive line prospects -- Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Charlton -- than many Big Ten schools had overall players among the 330 invited.
"It's pretty cool going through the combine like this with people you've spent four years with," said Glasgow. "It's so cool. Taco's so close to realizing his dreams and I'm so close to realizing mine."