Bruce Carter is entering his fourth and perhaps final season with the Cowboys, and as we look back over his first three seasons, the Bruce Carter headlines feel like they were always more about potential rather than actual performance. So much so that the early praise he's been receiving this year feels eerily similar to the unfulfilled hype of recent seasons.
Carter was widely projected as a first-round draft pick, but an ACL injury in his senior season dropped him to the second round of the 2011 draft, where the Cowboys picked him up. He spent part of the 2011 season on the NFI list as he recovered from his surgery, was activated in late October by the Cowboys, but saw only 41 defensive snaps over the rest of the season in addition to some work on special teams.
Once fully recovered, the Cowboys had high expectations for Carter in 2012. At the time, the thinking was that in Carter, the Cowboys were adding a second linebacker with first-round talent to their defense, a fact that was expected to result in a significant improvement for the Cowboys defense. And for anybody who had watched the Cowboys' defense in 2011, that made a lot of sense: the drop-off between Sean Lee and whoever was playing next to him was blindingly obvious - and that was when Sean Lee was playing with a cast on his hand for a large part of the season.
Jerry Jones was particularly impressed with Carter's speed heading into the 2012 season:
"We are faster," Jones said on KRLD-FM. "There's no question when you look at No. 54, Carter, out there. He's the fastest inside linebacker in the NFL, maybe the fastest linebacker, period.
"With him and Sean Lee out there, it's a big difference ... I'm very pleased with what we've done to the interior of our pass defense."
Jason Garrett also liked what he saw from Carter after Carter's first NFL start in 2012.
"You can see Bruce is somebody that can really run to the football," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He makes a lot of plays sideline to sideline. I also thought he covered well."
But despite the early praise, it took a while for Carter to come into his own that season, and it was only after Sean Lee was injured in Week 6 that Carter started to look and play like a guy with a first-round grade. But that terrific stretch of play only lasted until Week 11, when Carter himself suffered a season-ending injury.
Yet that short stretch was enough for Pro Football Focus to proclaim Carter a secret superstar for the 2013 season. And PFF's take is one that was widely shared at the time:
Even though Carter makes our Secret Superstar list on the strength of a solid second season, the future could be even brighter. He appears headed to his expected pre-draft home at weakside linebacker in a 4-3 and we may get a chance to see his athleticism and skillset on display under ideal conditions. There's still a chance that Carter could see time in the middle, but that job is likely better fit for Lee. Carter's best plays in coverage came in short zones last year and he struggled at times when forced to run down the middle of the field, a necessary requirement to play in the middle in the Tampa-2.
The zone instincts Carter displayed appear to be a perfect match for Kiffin's system that requires the outside linebackers to excel at reading quarterbacks and taking away the short passing game for opposing offenses. When you add in his tackling ability and speed that should be freed up to make plays, Carter could become a three-down force in Dallas for years to come.
Carter may very well still "become a three-down force in Dallas for years to come," but those years do not include 2013, a disappointing season for Carter by any measure.
So is 2014 the year Bruce Carter finally shines? Early reports are once again positive. Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com likes what he's seen from Carter so far.
I have to say I like what I have observed from Bruce Carter so far in these early practices. He is playing like a player that has a much better understanding of what his responsibilities are and what technique he has to execute in order to be successful.
There were clearly times last season where he was lost, not only dealing with the pass but also having to play against the run. It appears just watching the scheme that they are playing him behind the under-tackle or the three-technique, and it has protected him. It has allowed him to flow to the ball better, which has always been a strength of his.
Even in pass coverage, it doesn’t appear that he is guessing what he needs to fit. A good example of this was in the Team Blitz Period, where the offense tried to fool him with flow away to his right, then sneaking Jason Witten into the flat. Carter made a quick, aggressive move to his right, with his eyes on
Brandon Weeden. When Weeden pulled the ball from DeMarco Murray, Carter was right on Witten and in outstanding position to make the tackle for no gain.
And Carter himself is upbeat about the new season, prompting Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas to write that Carter "has a grin on his face again during training camp," and that for Carter "football is fun again."
"I’ve just got to go out there and play my game," Carter said. "I think when I played my bad games, I think I kind of let that get into my head a little bit and it kind of frustrated me and took me out of how I was and the fun out of football."
"I got that back and I had to get that back. I’m out here having fun with all the young guys. Just go out here and have fun and let everything else handle itself."
"In the NFL, you go through your highs and your lows," Carter said. "I think that’s just growth. Every player is going to have to go through it and experience that. But you’ve got to learn from it. I’m going to keep pushing. I’m a fighter. I’m going to just keep going."
On paper, Carter has everything the Cowboys could want from their weakside linebacker, and he briefly flashed that talent and ability in 2012. The challenge now is to get that type of performance from Carter on a consistent basis. Because for the Cowboys, getting an inside linebacker capable of impacting any and every play might just prove to be the missing piece for their 2014 defense.