Now that final cuts are out of the way and the regular season is upon us, Bengals' LB Chris Carter is switching his focus from trying to make the team to rewarding the team's faith in him by making an impact. On Saturday, when final cuts were submitted, the injuries to Marquis Flowers and Vontaze Burfict contributed significantly to the team's decision to keep him around as an insurance policy at linebacker.
Unfortunately for Carter, making the roster due to outside injuries means he should be prepared to be the first name to consider cutting when those players come back to the active roster. He had a fantastic preseason with the Bengals, coming out of virtually nowhere to record seven tackles, four solo tackles, three and a half sacks, two tackles for losses, and four QB hits. With that kind of production in only four preseason games, it will be interesting to see what Carter does this season. But, Carter is looking beyond just making the team, as he stated in an interview with Bengals.com; "The preseason has been very prosperous for me... but it's the preseason; it doesn't mean anything in my eyes."
Switching to a "New" Position
One way the team could increase Carter's value to the roster is having him help at another, more competitive, position. At times this week, the Bengal had him practice with the defensive ends, not linebackers.
At 6'1, 248 lbs, Carter is not your prototypical NFL defensive end purely because of being extremely undersized. However, he did begin his football career as a defensive end - playing particularly well in high school and performing well enough at Fresno State to get drafted in the fifth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Upon making it to the NFL, however, the Steelers thought that Carter would fit better as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive scheme, as opposed to the 4-3 that Carter was used to running. "This is the defense I'm used to, so I almost feel like I'm back at home again," Carter told Coley Harvey recently about the position switch, which could account for his stellar play so far.
At linebacker, there is limited room for involvement for Carter. Burfict is expected to be back at some point, Maualuga seems anchored to the starting position without much potential for change, and P.J. Dawson looks poised to lock down the final starting position at some point this season.
At defensive end, Michael Johnson missed the whole preseason and is questionable to return against Oakland. Margus Hunt is still unproven as is Will Clarke, more or less. It seems that there is much more room for Carter to make a lasting impact at DE if he can return to his college form.
Sticking with what has worked
One look at Carter's scouting report from 2011 will tell you his size simply does not suit playing defensive end at the NFL level. Furthermore, Carter stuck with the Steelers for his first three years as an outside linebacker. Granted, the Steelers ran a 3-4 defensive system, and Carter couldn't even last a month in 2014 with the Colts as a linebacker, but there's something to be said for not fixing what isn't broken.
Furthermore, Carter made the team as a linebacker - not as a defensive end. Whether or not the team was considering the possibility of switching him to defensive end later on is up for debate, but he has not put in any game tape as a defensive end in the NFL yet, despite currently being in his fifth season.
According to his interview on Bengals.com, he's also already bonded with the veteran linebackers, and even adopted one as his mentor. "The teammates welcomed me in like a brother, like Vontaze Burfict..." Carter said, "He was the first one to teach me the plays and take me around the city." Carter also mentioned Rey Maualuga in his list of players who he is grateful for, calling the environment more "like a family than any other environment that I've ever been in." It seems that he is mentally ready to prosper at either position, so the question simply becomes which position is it more practical for him to play?
What we can expect?
As Carter said in his interview with Bengals.com, "[this] is just the tip of the iceberg, it's just the beginning." Obviously, he has provided an effective presence in the pass rush this preseason that the Bengals would like to keep him around in whatever way they can. If that means playing around with his position to find where he is the most effective, so be it.
Carter already feels more comfortable being back in the Bengals' 4-3 defensive scheme, and he might feel even more comfortable by switching back to his old position. However, that might not be a great idea. He has been effective so far by getting around defensive linemen with his speed and ability to chase down the quarterback, so requiring him to go one-on-one with an NFL offensive lineman might not be the best idea.
However, to be an outside linebacker in a 4-3 system, Carter must also contribute fairly well in coverage, which he has not done much or well when put in that position. As his scouting report on NFL.com says, "[He] lacks athleticism to play out in space or in zone coverage. Likely to be a mismatch in man coverage." If he can successfully make the switch back to DE, streamline his pass rushing and mostly ignore pass coverage responsibilities, he can likely make a significant impact in this area.
That said, as comfortable as he might feel in a 4-3 system, his size is suited more to a 3-4 system, due to his potency rushing the passer off the edge and issues with directly confronting pass blockers. Despite the advantages on paper of using him at DE, he would probably prosper at the position that has kept him in the NFL since 2011.