The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player (rookies don’t count) for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Dallas Cowboys, that player is outside linebacker Bruce Carter.
When the Cowboys selected Bruce Carter in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft, they were taking a real chance. Carter had first round ability, with legitimate 4.4-4.5 speed at 6-1 241 and great weight room strength, throwing up 25 reps of 225 at The Combine, but was widely expected to go on day 2 because he had torn his ACL in the prior November. Not only would he likely not contribute as a rookie, he was a real question mark going forward. He couldn’t run the 40 at The Combine and it was a question whether he’d ever be able to regain that same explosiveness.
The Cowboys didn’t wait long into the 2nd day to take him, taking him 40th overall with the 8th pick of the 2nd round, doing so despite having 3 established middle linebackers ahead of him, Sean Lee, Keith Brooking, and Bradie James and also despite running a 3-4 scheme that Carter didn’t seem to be a natural fit for. He’d be playing 3-4 middle linebacker, a position more focused on size and strength, coming up to plug the run, rather than speed, instincts, and athleticism, making plays in space. His sideline to sideline speed would not be best utilized in that scheme.
Carter predictably barely played as a rookie, but in his 2nd year in the league in 2012, with Brooking and James gone, Carter beat out free agent signee Dan Connor, widely perceived as the favorite for the job after landing a multiyear deal in free agency. Carter eventually became an every down linebacker at middle linebacker after injuries knocked out Sean Lee for the season, but once again, injuries found Carter when he dislocated his elbow on Thanksgiving and had to be put on IR. Still, despite only playing 625 snaps and despite playing out of position, Carter graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked inside linebacker out of 62 eligible, with only 3 players ranked higher than him that played fewer snaps than him.
Now going into his 3rd year in the league, Carter is healthy again, but more importantly the scheme has changed. Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defense are gone and Monte Kiffin and his Tampa 2 scheme are in. Carter will be moving outside to weakside linebacker, where he will play every down in the role that Derrick Brooks thrived in with the Buccaneers for so many years under Kiffin. Carter’s skill set fits that role perfectly as his natural athleticism, instincts, and range will be allowed to shine. Provided he stays healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Carter emerged as one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL this season.