The Dallas Cowboys took a leap of faith when they drafted North Carolina linebacker Bruce Carter with the 40th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Many draft services rated Carter as a first-round talent, who would have been a top twenty pick in the first round, if not for the serious ACL injury he suffered towards the end of his senior season. The Cowboys war room opted to take the chance on a first-round talent with amazing athleticism instead of drafting a player who could have had given them instant production. That angered many Cowboys fans because the team passed on Brooks Reed, Rahim Moore, Stefen Wisniewski, Marvin Austin, Stephen Paea and Brandon Harris. Each one of those players was healthy, and could have stepped onto the field and contributed right away.
Carter started the season on the physically unable to perform list, and wasn't activated until week eight against the Philadelphia Eagles. This was part of the plan all along, and Jason Garrett knew what the Cowboys were getting into.
"The game plan for Carter is exactly what we thought it would be," Garrett said. "He had ACL surgery late in the year last year, so we knew what we were getting at that point with him. It was going to be a long road back for him. We anticipated that on draft day. He'd probably start the season on [the physically unable to perform list] and we'll see where he goes from there."
2012 will be a big year for the second-year inside linebacker. Carter should finally be one-hundred percent recovered from his ACL injury. In a lot of cases, these type of injuries take a long time to fully recover from. Missing all of the pre-season and training camp last year was too much time for a rookie to miss. It played a big part in Carter not receiving a lot of playing time. This year, barring another injury, he can soak in all of the experience that can be learned in the pre-season. Quickly getting a grasp of Rob Ryan's complicated defense will play a big part in his success or failure this year.
The Cowboys envision Carter stepping in as the starting inside linebacker opposite Sean Lee. With the success of Lee, who had a similar ACL injury in college, you would have to consider the possibility that the Cowboys have a good eye for inside linebackers. When the Cowboys draft board was leaked in 2010, you could see that the Cowboys rated Penn State linebacker Sean Lee and his teammate, NaVorro Bowman, very high.
After spending high draft picks on the position with the selections of Bobby Carpenter and Jason Williams, it is beginning to look like the Cowboys finally have the right scouting system in place for evaluating inside linebackers. If Bruce Carter pans out, it will go a long way in correcting some of the mistakes the franchise has made at the position.
"Bradie and Brooking are two of the best leaders, personalities I have ever had the pleasure of being around," Jones said. "They're great guys. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. That's what we've got to decide. But no one respects those guys more than we do, our family does, than the Cowboys do. Obviously when you make a decision to continue or discontinue, it is a big one."
James is now 32 years old, and Brooking is 36 years old. James has had a productive career in his nine years with the team, and we should all tip our hats in respect for his service. Brooking was signed in 2009, and he instantly became one of the fiery leaders on the team. But their play began to deteriorate during the 2011 season, and each became more of a liability on the field. The NFL is a young man's game, and while both of these players had great NFL careers, it is time to move on.
Bruce Carter has the job of stepping in, and replacing twenty-three years of combined NFL experience. This will not be an easy task for him, and there will be growing pains along the way. The Cowboys are banking on him being a instant producer on the field. That is why the Cowboys drafted him so high, they envisioned Carter redshirting his rookie season, and then taking over the starting role in 2012.
Recent history suggests that the Cowboys know what they are doing. When they drafted Sean Lee in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, they were looking towards the future. Lee missed a lot of time early on in his rookie season, but he came on strong towards the end. In 2011, Lee took a big step forward, entering his name among the best inside linebackers in all of football. If Bruce Carter can give us half of what Sean Lee can do, then the Cowboys will be set at the position.
Carter brings a unique skill set of athleticism and sideline to sideline ability. One of the problems the Cowboys defense faced last year was when our linebackers had to drop back in coverage. James and Brooking were routinely attacked by offensive coordinators who game planned against them. One of Carter's strengths is his speed. He has been rumored to run in the 4.4 range in the 40 yard dash, and speed like that can be utilized in pass coverage. We didn't get to see too much from him last year, but when we did, Carter looked the part physically.
Don't be surprised if the Cowboys decide to sign a veteran free agent inside linebacker. That doesn't mean they are down on Carter, it just means that the front office is doing their due diligence. One of the problems I had with the Alan Ball move to free safety was the lack of a backup plan. After a situation like that, the Cowboys don't want to venture into that territory again. The team would be wise to have a backup plan just in case Carter isn't ready to handle the starter's workload. So far, everything that is being said by Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett points to the Cowboys rolling with Carter next to Lee in 2012. The confidence they are displaying with the young man is comforting, but you should always have a backup plan in place.
We haven't heard much from Rob Ryan about Bruce Carter. Ryan has been very supportive of his defensive players during his brief time in Dallas, so I doubt he would say anything negative about him. I would like to see our defensive coordinator come out, and publicly support him. Adding an athletic linebacker to his starting lineup should excite Ryan, and it will allow him to be more creative with his inside linebacker blitzes and the way he schemes up his pass coverage.
The Cowboys are taking a leap of faith on Bruce Carter, but the fan base has also taken the leap with them. If everything goes according to plan, Bruce Carter and Sean Lee should team up to form, "Bruce Lee". I believe the Cowboys were extremely lucky to find a talent like Carter in the second-round last year. If he turns out to be the type of football player I envision, then we may have a pairing of two quality inside linebackers.