2023 NFL Draft: Atlanta Falcons should not pass on DL Jalen Carter despite off-field issues
If Jalen Carter somehow falls to the No. 8 pick, the Atlanta Falcons should run up to the podium like their hair is on fire to select him. He's one of the best prospects at defensive tackle in the last half decade and is one of those players that the coaches, teammates and fans love to have on their team. The Falcons could benefit from his presence on the defensive line opening up lanes for linebackers to rush through and eating double teams to help the edge rush get home.
Off field issues have been highlighted in the draft process
Jalen Carter had some rumors of off-field concerns as early as december that were reported by Todd McShay. He just hinted at there being issues, but not anything specific was noted at the time. It didn't make sense at the time based on how players around the Georgia program defended him. Carter has had two incidents since then with his role in a car crash that took two lives, and then there was the whole fiasco at the combine where he had a warrant issued for his arrest. He was able to make it back in time for testing but didn't do any. There was also an underwhelming pro day.
In January after a National Championship celebration that the Georgia players were having with some staffers, a car crash claimed the lives of two people. At the combine, an arrest warrant was issued for Carter, and he had to miss the combine press conference. He was arrested for street racing and reckless driving. He did end up having a plea deal that was agreed upon that should clear up his role in this situation (h/t CNN). Per the report, Carter was sentenced to the following:
""12 months of probation, a $1,000 fine and 50 hours of community service and completion of a state-approved defensive driving course.""- Kim Stephens, Jalen Carter's Attorney
A couple of weeks later, Jalen Carter had what was considered a rough outing at his pro day. He showed up nine pounds heavier than he did at the combine and had lower energy levels than expected per reports. Because of the lack of a quality showing at the pro day, some teams may knock him down their boards. Per a report from USA Today's Jarrett Bell,
""Carter didn’t even finish the array of drills conducted by Kansas City Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen, who carries the reputation of administering some of the most grueling positional workouts on the pro day circuit. At the end of the workout, Carter was seen flat on his back, appearing exhausted as he received treatment from an athletic trainer apparently tending to muscle tightness or cramping.""- Jarrett Bell of USA Today
That sounds relatively rough. This could mean that the teams are worried that he was partying the night before his pro day or that he isn't as dedicated to the game as other players. However, NFL teams may not hold this against him as much as expected though. Bell later spoke with an NFL executive, who he noted as a key decision maker, who shared the following:
"“I wasn’t as down on him as the reports said, I didn’t think he was that bad. His workout was good.”"- Anonymous source for Jarrett Bell
The issues outlined here could take him off of some team's boards. The Falcons may be one of those teams, and they may not. However, nothing here seems too far gone to fix. Nothing here seems like it's going to be tough to correct with the right locker room culture. Especially since players around the UGA program tend to love Carter.
Carter's teammates and coaches defended his off-field presence
While there are questions about Carter off the field, his teammates and coaches have nothing but glowing reviews about him. They continually defended him from the original accusations that Todd McShay levied against him with the following tweets (h/t Dawgs Daily's Christian Kirby II and DawgNation's Connor Riley):
Teammates don't just say that about anyone. Carter has stories all over the locker room of guys that he's helped out either with advice for younger players trying to make an impact or with other gestures. One such gesture he made was to pay for the meals of a teammate with his scholarship money. Bruce Feldman detailed the situation for the Athletic:
"Before this season Carter found out that Wallace, as a walk-on, couldn’t eat all the meals the scholarship defensive linemen were getting. Walk-ons weren’t able to eat lunch, but this year the players were given the choice to buy it. “Jalen heard about that. I’m the only walk-on in the defensive line room and he goes, ‘I’m not gonna let that happen.’ So he used his scholarship money to pay for me to get lunch every single day,” Wallace said."- Bruce Feldman, The Athletic
Players with poor character don't try to help their teammates with this kind of thing. They just keep it moving. Coaches at UGA loved him as well. Head coach Kirby Smart was one of his biggest fans. Alison Mastrangelo of WSB Atlanta posted the press speaking with Coach Smart at Georgia's Pro day when he was asked about Carter:
That doesn't sound like the kind of guy who wouldn't fit into the locker room of a budding team and culture that the Falcons are trying to build. It sounds like someone who the Falcons should take and put into their locker room. He was a captain at the University of Georgia for a reason, and he would likely eventually be a captain for the Falcons.
Carter's on-field prowess at Georgia left no questions about pro ability
The Georgia Bulldogs primarily used Jalen Carter as a pass rusher because that's where his best fit in their scheme was. On 273 pass rushing snaps in 2022, he gave the Bulldogs three sacks, five quarterback hits and 24 quarterback hurries according to Pro Football Focus. That's a clip of one quarterback pressure every 8.5 snaps, which is one of the best rates in the nation. He regularly saw double teams even as a sophomore with talented players like Jordan Davis next to him, though his pressure rate was slightly down due to the loss of the massive davis in 2022.
As a key cog for the back-to-back national champions, Carter led a defensive line that was regularly putting quarterbacks on their back, stuffing the run at the line and keeping their linebackers clean to make plays. In Athens, he would win with a quick first step, tremendous strength and the kind of anchor that most defensive linemen aren't able to find until two-to-three years into a pro strength program. He's one of the top three players in the draft on-field, and it's easy to see why.
Carter could start out as a pass rusher, and develop into more
While the Falcons do have two-to-three capable starters on the defensive interior at this time with TaQuon Graham, Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata under contract, they don't have much depth at all. Early in his career, Carter could come in as a pass rush specialist and depth piece that would help in case the Falcons see injuries pile up like they did during the 2022 season. They lost Vincent Taylor, Eddie Goldman, and Graham during or before the season to either injury or retirement and needed someone to step up. No one truly did.
Carter would instantly be that depth piece should any of the Falcons starters get hurt and could even prevent injury by allowing the Falcons to lower Jarrett's snap count percentage from around 80 percent to closer to a 65 percent range. He's also unique in that he can play the nose, a 3-4 defensive end role or even a 3-technique role at defensive tackle effectively. Having the kind of dominant play that Carter had in the SEC paired with Jarrett or Onyemata or Graham on any given snap could help keep linebackers clean in the second level as well.
Atlanta has the mentors and depth to help Carter develop into an All-Pro
With Grady Jarrett, TaQuon Graham and David Onyemata slated to be the starters for the Falcons defensive line, Jalen Carter wouldn't have to be the primary guy up front and could be used in a more advantageous snap count earlier in his career. With Jarrett and Onyemata as veteran mentors, Carter can have two guys show him how to play the game in the pros and how to act like a professional off the field. Carter is just 21 years old and would benefit from them in a similar way that Julio Jones benefited from having Roddy White as his mentor at wide receiver.
Carter played a ton of snaps at UGA as a junior and would get winded at times from facing all of the double teams he had to face. By being in a rotation and having multiple guys ahead of him to start his career, he could play in a dominating pass rush role early while eventually developing into that true all-around player that he needs to be. The former Bulldog would be able to use his size, strength and speed to become a dominating pass rusher on a reasonable timeline instead of being forced into a starting role like he would be elsewhere.
There's a theory that free agency is designed to fill holes with starting caliber players and that the draft is designed to add blue chippers to the program. The Falcons have filled those holes in free agency and there's only three or four blue chip prospects in the draft depending on who you asked. Carter is one of those blue chip prospects. If the Falcons don't bring him in, they are hurting their chances to have a winning record in 2023.
In the end, while Carter does have some questions surrounding him off the field, it would be extremely tough to move away from his talent level at No. 8 overall. He's one of the best defensive tackle prospects in years and compares favorably to Ndamukong Suh coming out of college. Atlanta would be taking a risk, but the risk doesn't seem as bad as most would think based on how his coaches and teammates respect and trust him. He was a key cog for back-to-back championships in college, and he should be a key cog for a championship in Atlanta if they have that opportunity.