Cowboys Draft Prospects: Bruce Carter

Bruce Carter stretches out to make an acrobatic interception against Rutgers

As we move closer to the draft, our series on prospects who were invited to Valley Ranch moves closer to the line of scrimmage: the remaining players all man positions in the defensive front seven. We'll begin our visit with a stop in North Carolina, where linebacker Bruce Carter made a name for himself playing for former Cowboys' defensive coordinator Butch Davis. Carter was a three-year starter (total of 33 career starts) who had played in every Tarheels game since his arrival in Chapel Hill. Unfortunately, he injured his knee in late November in the NC State contest, and had surgery in early December. Before being injured, he was named one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, presented to the nation's top linebacker. Not only is he a strong contributor on defense, he's also a special teams demon: Carter has blocked seven kicks (six punts and a field goal) in his career, including three punts in a single game, against UConn. 

If not for his injury, Carter would almost certainly be a first-round selection. Entering the season, numerous prognosticators had Carter as the No. 1 senior outside linebacker prospect. Indeed, he's an outstanding athlete--a sideline-to-sideline run-and-chase linebacker with ability to make plays all over the field, reminiscent of the smaller, faster 'backers the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys collected in the 90s. He had registered a stunning 4.39 40-yard dash (!), which is better than all but a handful of the defensive backs in this year's class. Thanks to YouTube, you can see that speed in action against Florida State, Virginia Tech, Virginia, and LSU.

This is not to say that Carter is merely a speed guy; he has tremendous strength for his size; he set a UNC linebacker record with a power clean of 374 and can bench-press 440 pounds and squat 605. Oh, and he can jump out of the building: his vertical is 40.5 inches! Notably, none of these marks were registered at either the Combine or the UNC pro day; because of his knee, Carter couldn't participate in either. Perhaps because of the uncertainty surrounding his knee, Carter has received surprisingly scanty love from NFL teams during the pre-draft buildup. Other than the Cowboys, only the Lions and Bills have scheduled visits with him--a somewhat surprising development, as I'd expect Carter to be the kind of player that teams would want to invite to their facilities, so he could be checked out by their team doctors.

It's possible that teams interested in Carter are going out of their way to downplay that interest, so that he'll be more likely to fall to the bottom of the second--or, for the Cowboys, top of the third. Might he fall that far? Before answering that question, let's take a look at what our collection of Internet draft gurus have to say about Carter, after the jump...

National Football Post (Wes Bunting) 5th-rated OLB 62nd overall

One of the more gifted athletes you're going to see at the position. Possesses a long, athletic-looking frame and is at his best when asked to click and close and make plays in pursuit. Showcases great explosion once he locates the football and quickly is able to get from point A to point B. Exhibits impressive length and range when asked to break down and wrap up on contact. At times will overrun his man, but for the most part is able to wrap up and get the ball carrier to the ground. Possesses above-average natural anchor strength for a guy his size. However, he isn't real violent into blocks. Doesn't exhibit a real snap/pop from his lower half, isn't a real impressive puncher and looks content to simply anchor instead of using his length — which he extends well — in order to shed and try to make a play off his frame.

Exhibits impressive fluidity and balance in his drop, cleanly getting out of his breaks and generating a burst for himself toward the football. Definitely has the ability to turn and run down the seam with NFL-caliber tight ends, as he's consistently asked to line up over the slot in zone coverage, holding up pretty well vs. college receivers. However, the biggest knock on him is his inability to quickly react to the football. Isn't real instinctive, doesn't consistently trust what he sees and rarely gets an early jump on the pass. Puts himself in position to make plays on the football, but is slow to get his head around in the pass game and adjust to the throw.

However, has a real savvy for blocking kicks, is explosive, can cleanly change directions and does a great job dropping his pad level and accelerating after the football. Could have a real impact as a special teams guy early in the career.

Impression: A gifted athlete who has the makings of a starting weakside backer in the NFL. But I do have some questions about his instincts, which could end up holding him back from ever becoming a real impact player at the next level. However, tore his ACL toward the end of the year and is now a major medical risk.

The Sporting News (Russ Lande) 3rd-rated OLB; 50th overall

Against the inside run: Does a good job of using his hands to stay free from offensive line blocker on the second level, closes quickly and makes tackles consistently on inside runs. Is smooth filling the hole, can take on lead blocker in the hole and can defeat blocker to make the tackle, but is not aggressive or explosive filling the hole, which limits his ability to blow up plays in the backfield. Moves easily through traffic and flashes good use of hands to keep low blocks from getting into his legs, which enables him to move to the ballcarrier and make tackles on the inside run.

Against the outside run: Has the size, playing strength and athleticism to make plays on both sides of the field on outside runs. Does a good job of taking on the lead blocker at the point of attack. While he takes on blocker strong at the point of attack, he needs to press and squeeze blocker to close the hole quicker. Reads the play quickly and gets started toward the ball quickly to finish plays.

Blitz/coverage
: Does not explode off the ball when rushing the quarterback and has not shown the hand-use and pass-rush skill to defeat pass blocks. Can get to full speed before encountering a blocker and can use his size and strength to drive blocker backward with a strong bull rush. Can be an adequate straight-line pass rusher, but lacks the explosiveness off the ball to consistently pressure the quarterbacks of the NFL. Does not stand out as a pass rusher, but is a versatile pass defender. Lack of quick twitch, explosiveness hinders his ability to close on receiver in time to make a play on the ball.

Run/pass recognition
: Is a smart and instinctive defender who reads and reacts to the play quickly and does not get fooled by play-action fakes. Instincts and foot quickness help him get started to the ball fast. Has nice technique tackling with good knee bend, balance and use of hands. Shows instincts and field awareness in his pass drops

Pursuit/tackling: Reads the play quickly on running plays away and has the explosive closing burst to finish plays. Chase speed is deceptive, but passes other defenders and makes a lot of tackles in backside pursuit. Does a good job of keeping his knees bent and staying under control when running to the ball, which enables him to be a good open field tackler. Can adjust and tackle elusive ballcarriers with ease.

Bottom line: Carter will likely become a consistent linebacker in the NFL, even if he does not make as many game-changing plays. However, his draft status will plummet because he underwent reconstructive ACL surgery in December and won't be working out before the draft.

Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki) 2nd-rated OLB; 28th overall

Positives: Passes the eye test and worked out like a phenom prior to injury. Rare athlete with an explosive, quick-twitch, short-area burst and natural knee bend. Outstanding balance and lateral agility. Functions in space. Adept at slipping and avoiding blocks. Ranges to the sideline to track down ballcarriers. Can run and hit and shows burst to close and finish. Drops effortlessly into zone coverage and has loose hips to shadow backs and tight ends. Has special-teams value and stood out in this area—seven career blocked kicks.

Negatives: Lacks bulk. Not stout or physical at the point of attack—plays too soft and too many tackles come down the field. Overruns some plays. Lassos too many tackles and can do a better job squaring up ballcarriers. Does not take on blocks with force or accelerate off them. Has to be schemed free as a blitzer. Has a finesse temperament and lacks killer instinct.—does not play violently. Inconsistent compete level and urgency—plays when he wants to. Lacks confidence and an innate feel for the game. Durability could be an issue.

Summary: Has very clear first-round talent but could slide out of the first round coming off knee surgery. Converted from safety and still covers like a defensive back and has special traits in coverage. Fly-to-the-ball, finesse, run-around ‘backer with exceptional physical tools who could be very productive as a 4-3 weakside linebacker where his range and athletic ability would play best.

ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton) 4th-rated OLB; 47th overall

Instincts/Recognition: Overall instincts are adequate but not good. More of a see and then react LB at this point. Takes the bait far too often in the run game and will get sucked out of position too easily. Just not naturally instinctive versus the run at times. Sturdivant consistently diagnoses run quicker. However, Carter is disciplined and rarely falls for play fakes. Flashes ability to sniff out screens and draws.

Strength/Toughness: Possesses functional strength for size. Flashes quick-twitch explosiveness at the point of attack, however does not always fire his gun. Is too much of a finesse player. Needs to play with more aggression. Absorbs too many blocks and rarely plays with reckless abandon. He will occasionally work around blockers when he should take him on. Not as tough as we'd like to see at this position, which is a significant concern. Also can do a better job of taking on blocks with proper shoulder to maintain gap control with run fits. Will turn shoulder when taking on blocks and slim lower body makes him easily engulfed by bigger blockers in phone booth situations.

Range vs. Run: Excellent overall athlete and possesses sideline-to-sideline range. Easy mover and changes directions well laterally. Takes sound angles to the ball and flashes ability to maneuver through traffic but pursuit angles are inconsistent. He overruns too many plays, which leads to missed tackles Closing burst is a notch below elite and can make up ground in pursuit from behind.

Tackling
: Has size and flashes explosiveness to deliver violent hit on occasion. Doesn't consistently square up, deliver a blow and drive through contact, though. Does a solid job of wrapping up in space the majority of time but occasionally will come in too hot and get himself in trouble. Needs to learn to gear down and break down at times (especially when he's nearing the sideline).

3rd Down Capabilities: Is a smooth moving, quick and agile LB with a lot of upside in coverage. Possesses great range in zone coverage and gets adequate depth in drops. However, needs to show more awareness for crossers behind him. Has the ability to stick with RB's and TE's when matched up in man coverage. Excellent ball skills for a LB (see: 11:53 2nd QTR vs. Rutgers 2010). Flashes the explosiveness to run through RB's on blitzes. Certainly possesses the closing burst to get home when having a clear run at QB. However, does not have the power and ability to counter once initially slowed by bigger offensive lineman.

Intangibles: Dedicated and loves the weight room. Outgoing personality. Brings added value as a special teams standout and blocked six kicks during career, including three against Connecticut in 2008.

These reports are very positive; Carter's clearly a talented athlete, with a rare combination of speed, quickness, and strength. That said, I was initially confused by the Cowboys' interest in him, largely due to the fact that he seems wrong for their scheme: at 6-3, 235, he's a prototypical 4-3 weakside OLB. Where might he play in a 3-4 scheme? Rush linebacker on passing downs? A Darren Woodson-style strong safety conversion project (he played safety in high school)? Certainly he's too small to withstand the rigors of 3-4 ILB, is he not?

Welllll, I'm not so sure about that. Recall the high grade the Cowboys gave to Sean Lee one year ago; the 6-2, 236-pound Lee was almost a carbon copy size-wise, yet they felt he could play the middle. Clearly, Dallas currently places more of a premium on speed and the ability to diagnose and run than on the sheer bulk that was a bottom-line necessity for a Bill Parcells 3-4 ILB. I'd bet that Carter receives the same grade as Lee did last year--minus a round for the injury. That would place him about the middle of the second round.

I don't think the Cowboys could justify selecting a player with such injury questions with the fortieth pick. If Dallas is able to acquire another second or third-round choice in a trade down, then I think taking a chance on a player with this level of upside will look like a much less risky gamble for Jones and Garrett. So, if Carter's still on the board at the end of the second round, or, even better, when the Cowboys pick at # 71, I'd say he's a very real possibility. That's where I'm going to place him: at the top of the third round--with the proviso that he might be one of the guys they'd trade back into the second round to select.

Next up: LSU ILB Kelvin Sheppard

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