Weakside linebacker Bruce Carter has shown real stretches of brilliance during his three-year tenure with the Cowboys, but not enough to have justified the first-round grade or second-round draft pick the team spent on him in 2011. After an injury-shortened rookie season, the team brought in free agent Dan Connor to compete for the starting spot in 2012, and Carter won the job hands down. He showed real play-making ability that year in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 scheme, but his season was cut short by injury. The team was high on Carter last offseason, and he was thought to be a perfect athletic fit for the Will linebacker spot when the team transitioned to a 4-3 defense.
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Unfortunately, it didn’t take. Or at least it hasn’t yet. Hope springs eternal; at least it does this time of year in 32 camps across the country. Carter lost his starting spot in Week 4 last year to the much older, much less athletic, but much more schematically experienced Ernie Sims. Carter would battle back to regain the starter’s role, only to lose it again in Week 8. Again, he would compete and regain the role, and played every defensive snap in five of the last six regular season games. Whatever else Carter has been labeled – a slow learner, injury-prone, a second-round bust – one thing he’s shown for certain is he’s a fighter.
And that quality will serve him well this year – the final year of his rookie contract. The Cowboys drafted two middle linebackers last week – Iowa’s Anthony Hitchens and Texas Tech’s Will Smith. Each has the position flex to compete for the Will linebacker spot. Carter’s spot. Suddenly linebacker is a crowded field in Cowboys camp, with promising second-year player DeVonte Holloman, veteran Justin Durant, and converted end Kyle Wilber all competing alongside Carter and the rookies for snaps with the corps’ anchor, middle linebacker Sean Lee.
At Friday’s press conference, a reporter asked defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli about Carter’s confidence, what with a disappointing season in his rear view mirror and a host of new competition awaiting him in camp:
"I don’t do confidence stuff. Get down and play. Get down and play. Here’s your assignment key. We want you to play fast; we want you to take the ball away… Go play. It’s a man’s game out here. Let’s go, let’s play it the right way out here, and that’s what I want."
Carter was a consensus first-round talent out of North Carolina in 2011, but he tore his ACL late his senior season and as a result missed the NFL combine. He fell to the Cowboys as the 40th overall pick. Dallas knew he would be limited his rookie season due to the injury, and he played just 41 snaps on defense, though he was a presence on special teams later in the year. With the benefit of his experience in the system and the offseason to prepare, Carter won the starting job in 2012 and became a playmaker for the team before an elbow injury against the Washington Redskins in Week 12 ended his season.
Now he has a year under his belt as the Will linebacker in Marinelli’s 4-3 defense. The knock on Carter last year was that he “played slow,” or was indecisive in moving to the ball carrier, suggesting he was uncomfortable with his role. He couldn’t simply read and react – he was thinking too much. The question is whether with a year under his belt, and a clearer understanding of his assignments, can he duplicate his 2012 performance and find the mental comfort level to play to his athletic potential. Marinelli said the coaches are doing everything they can to help him:
"What we do at the end of the year, we make “Get Better” reels on every guy. How to get better. And we play maybe plays that aren’t good enough… techniques. So you put those things together and you sit down with him and you show him, exactly, this is what we have to correct. And so you see that. Not just him, every guy. And so that gives you a plan in the offseason. You don’t just show up; you have a plan. And that’s what we do, and we expect every guy to follow the plan."
There’s no question Bruce Carter has the physical chops to be a playmaker at the Will. And the guy is a competitor. A fighter. A grinder. He’s shown that throughout his career. Has he followed the plan? With a year of playing and an offseason of studying under his belt, has he learned the assignment keys to play to his potential? Camp will tell. If he has, this defense just got a whole lot better than it looks on paper.