As most of you probably know, the Steelers have arguably one of the best 3-4 Outside Linebacker rotations in the National Football League. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are established Pro Bowl players, and Jason Worilds is a solid backup behind both of the starters. While these three aforementioned players sit atop Pittsburgh’s depth chart, there is not a whole heck of a lot of experienced depth (3-4 scheme-wise) behind them. Chris Carter however is one player on the Steelers’ roster though that will be hungry to take hold of the other top backup spot at the Outside Linebacker position as he begins his second year in the League. So today I would like to discuss Carter’s career so far, and why his development over the next few months and the 2012 season are so important for him, the Outside Linebacker position, and the Defense as a whole.
Carter’s College Career and Rookie Season
Like almost all of the Outside Linebackers which have starred for the franchise over the last two decades, Carter lined up as a Defensive End in at Fresno State. A pass-rush specialist, Carter tore up the WAC off the edge, and really showcased his skills at getting to the Quarterback over his collegiate career. And as three year starter for the Bulldogs, Carter really emerged during his last two seasons with the team.
The 6’1” 248 lb. Carter earned All-WAC honors in 2009 and 2010, and was named Conference Defensive Player of the Year his Senior campaign where he racked up 11.0 Sacks, 16.5 Tackles For Losses, and 4 Forced Fumbles. Considered a smaller pass-rushing tweener (DE/OLB hybrid) coming out of college, Carter was thought to be a solid mid-Round selection for a 3-4 team looking to develop an Outside Linebacker. Always on the lookout to bolster their pass-rush, the Steelers were one of those teams looking for a player with a skill-set like Carter’s to develop, and selected him up in the 5th Round last season.
After starring in college, Carter had a somewhat difficult Rookie season in Pittsburgh. Like almost all first year players on the Defensive side of the ball, Carter saw almost zero time during his Rookie season (3 Tackles, 1 Tackle For Loss Total in 2011). It is hard enough for many Rookies to transition to Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau’s Defensive schemes, but Carter was faced with a hamstring injury and limited to only 8 games, he had to learn a new position (3-4 OLB), and he did not have the luxury of OTA’s and minicamps during his first offseason to boot. Due to the lockout, Linebackers Coach Keith Butler described how difficult it was for Carter, as well as the team’s other young Linebackers (specifically Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester) to continue/begin their development and transition to their new positions the Steelers 3-4 scheme. Thus, to say that Carter’s first season was a tad rocky is somewhat of an understatement.
Carter’s Chances of Seizing Roster Spot
Over the next few months though, the 23 year-old Carter will have his best chance to put his skills on display and outplay the competition which will be after his backup job. Lucky for Carter, his top competition is a bit thin at the moment as he will likely have to fend off former Bengals newcomer Brandon Johnson (who will likely be used in Pass Coverage and Special Teams), UDFA tweener from Temple Adrian Robinson, 2011 UDFA Brandon Hicks from Florida, and possibly even newly acquired UDFA Ryan Baker and recently injury-waived UDFA tweener Brandon Lindsey of Pitt if he comes back healthy or clears waivers.
Despite the numbers of players competing for his job, Carter should have the best chance to win the 2nd string job opposite Worilds for two important reasons. First, he has the most experience in the LeBeau Defense, and second, he has extended experience on the Special Teams units. Plus, as Butler alluded to in the video I linked above, Carter has been given somewhat of a benefit of the doubt because he has yet to have a full offseason of OTA’s and minicamps to impress the coaching staff and show off his skills and the knowledge he has picked up so far of the Defensive system. While he may have some important advantages, Carter will still need to put his skills on display and impress the Coaching Staff over the next few months, and put his stamp on the backup job as quickly as possible. With an impressive training camp and preseason, there should be no reason Carter is left off of the roster.
Why Carter’s Emergence/Development Is Specifically Important
Overall Pass-Rushing Depth
As a whole, depth and help as a pass-rusher would be the two biggest things Carter could bring to the table if he realizes his potential and continues to develop. Sure, the Steelers currently have some of the best pass-rushers in the game, and Carter will likely be relegated to Special Teams duty this season. Yet the injury-bug has not been kind to the Steelers and their Outside Linebackers over the last couple of seasons, and other issues also could be causes for alarm for the team in the not too distant future.
As it stands now, James Harrison is 34, has had back issues, and is not what you would call “BFF” with The Commissioner of the sport. Deebo might have another couple of seasons left in the tank, but back injuries are never the easiest to sustain and continue a high level of play with in one’s mid 30’s. Plus, after he was benched for one game last season after a perfectly legal hit on Colt McCoy, there is no telling what his punishment will be the next time he lights some poor guy up that decides to put his body in harm’s way. Granted, Jason Worilds has played well when given his chances over his three seasons with the team. Still, Worilds has missed multiple games over his short career with various injuries, and will reach Restricted Free Agent status after this season ends. Finally, despite the fact that he came on strong after a quiet and unimpressive start, LaMarr Woodley still missed significant time with a hamstring injury last season, and looked less than 100% towards the end of the season after he came back to the starting lineup.
Unlike Harrison though, I am sure Woodley will be fine and in tip-top shape in 2012 and beyond, and his health and long-term productivity are not causes for concern. But in the event that Harrison retires after the next couple of seasons and Worilds continues to get injured or leaves as a Free Agent, the Steelers still will need another pass-rusher or two to step-up and pick up some of the slack. Thus, Carter could be called upon to eventually fill that role come late 2013 or 2014 and give the Steelers another viable pass-rushing threat to pair with Woodley, and possibly even Worilds too if he decides to stay.
What to Look for This Season
As I alluded to before, Carter will likely not be thrust into the starting lineup unless a rash of injuries strike the Outside Linebacker position at such a high rate like they did last season. Nevertheless, the continued development of Carter as a stand-up pass-rusher might be important for this team over the coming seasons, and Training Camp and the preseason will be the places for us fans to keep a close eye on the former Fresno State Bulldog.
Like James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, and it seems like all other Linebackers (especially tweeners) before him, Carter will likely be slated for another season on the Special Teams units as he learns the tricks of the trade from the Coaching Staff and the veterans at his position. There are few in the League which have the luxury of learning from some of the best at their craft (Harrison and Woodley), can be pushed by other young talent like Worilds, and getting some of the best coaching (Butler and LeBeau), all at the same time during their second year like Carter can. So if everything works out well, Carter, along with the other young LB’s, Worilds and Sylvester, should be able to take advantage of a full offseason of work and continue to improve each and every day at their respective positions.
I cannot wait for Training Camp, and I cannot wait to see what ends up happening with the Outside Linebacker situation over the next few seasons. As I stated before, Woodley is and will be a lock to start at one of the spots, but as far as Harrison and Worilds go, their futures’ with the franchise post 2013 could be a bit of a mystery.
At least to me, the backup roster spot and chance to develop into the next in line of the Steelers’ OLB’s should be Carter’s to lose over the next few months. My hope is that Carter can develop in a way similar to another former WAC tweener drafted in the 5th Round by the franchise who had a number of nice seasons for the Steelers: Clark Haggans. Like Haggans, hopefully Carter can emerge after a few seasons on Special Teams and become a solid Outside Linebacker if and when he is finally called upon to contribute.
All we can do though now is wait, and see what unfolds over the next few months.
Are you ready for the season to start “Steeler Nation?”