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Cowboys' LB Bruce Carter Set To Turn Heads In The NFL

We only have two pictures of Carter in our archives - this is one of them - but that's likely to change this season.
We only have two pictures of Carter in our archives - this is one of them - but that's likely to change this season.

When the Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter last year, the general consensus was that Carter would have been a first-round pick had he been healthy. Barring his knee injury, Carter would likely have been the first linebacker taken in the 2010 draft, and some even had the pre-injury Carter pegged as a potential top 10 pick.

Since then, it has grown rather quiet around Carter. In fact, he may well be the Cowboys' forgotten draft pick. He only played on 41 defensive snaps last season and didn't really stand out apart from a couple of special teams highlight plays. That may change this year, and not a moment too soon.

In a recent Galloway & Co episode on 103.3 ESPN radio, they called him "the star of OTAs". With Dan Connor out recovering from his shoulder surgery, Carter got all the first team reps in OTAs this year, and he impressed more than just the local media.

"From Year 1 to Year 2 is very significant in a player’s development, particularly a guy like that, who watches a lot in Year 1,’’ Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "You want to see him out there playing.

"Over the course of the first nine OTAs, he’s been impressive. He’s one of those guys who is growing every day, and you can see it. He’s becoming more and more comfortable.’’

Sean Lee is excited about the development he's seen from Carter in the nine OTAs so far:

"Bruce looks great. He's done a really good job of improving each day, of learning the defense. He's obviously a very good athlete, he's a very smart guy too and he's done a good job of continuously making plays."

Stephen Jones was also very complimentary of Carter:

"Bruce is going to be a mainstay for us, regardless of whether he starts or not, in our dime defense and playing that nickel linebacker," Jones told KTCK "The Ticket" 1310 AM. "He’s going to be a handful. One of the things that has really stuck out in this camp is what a great coverage guy he is."

While we've learned not to put too much weight on what happens when players run around in shorts, it is encouraging to hear that Bruce Carter is progressing - not unlike the way Sean Lee progressed after a rookie season in which he was also only used sparingly. And that progress is not coming a moment too soon for the Cowboys.

The secondary, and particularly the cornerback play, received the brunt of the criticism last year for the Cowboys' atrocious pass defense (ranked 25th with a 88.4 defensive passer rating). But what has hardly been talked about is the fact that the pass coverage by the Cowboys inside linebackers was a major weakness that destabilized the entire defense.

Did you know for example that Sean Lee, despite missing almost two full games, was targeted by opposing QBs 63 times last year, the fifth highest value for any inside linebacker in the league? Or that the Cowboys' inside linebackers were one of the favorite targets for opposing QBs? The Cowboys' inside linebackers were in pass coverage on 759 snaps last year and were targeted a combined 113 times, for a 14.9% target rate. That target rate is the the third highest in the league after Atlanta and Oakland.

Think about that for a minute. The Cowboys had an injured Jenkins and a declining Newman on the field, often replaced by Alan Ball and Frank Walter, and the opposition still decided to go after the linebackers. That should tell you all you need to know about the pass coverage from the ILB spots.

Player Pass coverage snaps Targets Target Rate Receptions Yards
Keith Brooking 177 30 16.9% 20 269
Bradie James 150 16 10.7% 13 128
Bruce Carter 19 4 21.1% 2 17
Sean Lee wk 1-7 188 35 18.6% 27 300
Sean Lee wk 9-17 243 27 11.1% 22 178

The average NFL target rate is 12.2%. Among the 56 inside linebackers with at least 100 pass coverage snaps last season, Brooking had the fourth highest target rate with 16.9% (just ahead of DeMeco Ryans with 16.5%, so good luck with that, Eagles fans). Clearly, Brooking was the weak spot in pass coverage, and opposing DC's tried to exploit it. Coincidentally, on that 56-player list, Dan Connor has the third lowest target rate with 8.0%.

Bradie James saw action mostly on running downs, so that explains why his target rate is relatively low - had he been in on more passing downs, his rate would likely be at Brooking's level. Carter's handful of snaps are too small to infer any meaning from.

The interesting numbers here though are Sean Lee's. In the first six games of last season, opposing offenses obviously figured that Lee would be the best guy to target, resulting in a target rate of 18.6%. For the full season, that would have given Lee the second highest target rate in the league. But after three interceptions in the first six games, opposing offenses changed their gameplans and cut Lee's target rate almost in half, despite the cast on his arm that wasn't particularly helpful in pass coverage.

Imagine a Lee without a cast in pass coverage. Now imagine the ultra-athletic (and "great coverage guy" according to Stephen Jones) Bruce Carter next to him. Add Dan Connor as perhaps the nickel guy. It won't take much for either Carter or Conner to be better in pass coverage than Brooking and James were last year. With those changes, you now have a linebacking corps that won't just deliver slobberknockers against the run but will also excel in pass coverage.

Between acquiring Brandon Carr, drafting Morris Claiborne and Mike Jenkins' staying out of OTAs, the secondary has received most of the headlines this offseason. And while I have no doubt that the secondary will be much improved from last year, I think the inside linebacker play will have the most significant impact on the overall team defense.

One of the reason public opinion has grown a little lukewarm towards Carter is that many fans and observers are having trouble figuring out exactly what the Cowboys plan to do with Carter once he does get on the field. Is he an inside linebacker, or will he be used more to rush the passer? Is he a runstopper, a nickel linebacker or maybe even a three-down guy?

In a nutshell, the answer is "a little bit of everything", which makes him the perfect player at the perfect spot for Rob Ryan's defensive scheme.

Related: Cowboys' Offseason Moves Geared Towards Achieving "Multiplicity"

Bruce Carter can be the poster boy for the Cowboys' "multiplicity" approach. He can cover, he can rush, he can stop the run. He'll also contribute on special teams. Heck, last we heard, Carter was even working on making the line calls.

This year we'll probably see a Cowboys inside linebacker unit the likes of which we haven't seen in quite a while. And Bruce Carter will be a key part of that.

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