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Can Lorenzo Carter develop into the pass rusher the Giants need?

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He has the tools, can he turn it into production?

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants drafted a linebacker. That’s not a phrase that has gotten said or typed often. The question now about Lorenzo Carter, the Giants’ third-round pick out of Georgia, is what type of linebacker is he going to be?

Likely Carter will be a “linebacker” in name only. He’s projected to be an edge rusher who happens to stand up on the outside, a position important to the defensive scheme of coordinator James Bettcher. Carter has been billed as nothing but an edge rusher despite his lack of production at the college level. During his four seasons at Georgia, Carter complied 14 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. In Bradley Chubb’s final season at North Carolina State, he had 10 sacks and 23 tackles for loss. That could be a reason one was a top-five pick and the other was taken in the third round.

Still the Giants appear to be bullish on the pass rush abilities of Carter, so much so that general manager Dave Gettleman revealed he tried to trade up for him earlier in the draft during the press conference following the third round. Of the player, Gettleman said:

“He’s an edge pass rusher. He’s a solid run player. He’s big, he can run… He’s going to give us flexibility. He’s going to be an outside player, obviously. He’ll give us pass rush, that’s what we know he’ll give us.”

That’s a lot of confidence in the translation of a skill that wasn’t put on display all that often in college. Per the Pro Football Focus draft guide, Carter was a pass rusher on just a third (33.1 percent) of his defensive snaps. Just under half (49.3 percent) came against the run and the other 17.6 percent came in coverage.

Those numbers are going to change with the role the Giants expect Carter to play and the way Bettcher has used outside linebackers in the past. Unless you’re the middle linebacker in a Bettcher defense, rushing the passer is a top priority.

Here’s the breakdown of responsibilities for Arizona’s outside linebackers last season:

Arizona Outside Linebackers 2017

Player Pass Rush Coverage Run
Player Pass Rush Coverage Run
Chandler Jones 58.5% 4.9% 36.6%
Haason Reddick 49.0% 27.3% 23.7%
Kareem Martin 40.6% 8.3% 51.1%
Markus Golden 57.2% 5.6% 37.2%
percentages per PFF

Oliver Vernon will likely slot into the Chandler Jones role, so for an idea of Carter’s responsibilities, we’ll look at the others. The lowest rate of pass rush among them was now-current Giant Kareem Martin, who rushed the passer on 40 percent of his snaps. Even Haason Reddick, who played more “inside” rushed the passer on almost half of his snaps.

Where he wins

What Carter has in his favor is his athletic ability. He tested first among this class of edge rushers in the 96th percentile of SPARQ — a composite athletic testing score which means he tested better than 96 percent of NFL players at his position.

That athleticism plays well in the areas that allow Carter to show it off. He has sideline to sideline speed and his burst off the line can be deadly on a blitz. In his best game of his senior season against Notre Dame, Carter was a force as a pass rusher.

There were two plays in the game when Carter got a free release off the edge and quarterback Brandon Wimbush had little time to react.

On the first play early in the third quarter around midfield, Carter got in the backfield so quickly he almost caused a sack on a screen pass. He exploded off the edge and got a hit on the quarterback that rushed the play and helped force a drop.

Later in the quarter, Carter got another free rush off the edge and he was able to get to the quarterback on a straight drop back. Running back Josh Adams was way too late to cross the formation to pick up the blitz and Carter was able to get a sack and forced fumble on the play.

Perhaps his best rep was earlier in the game, though, when he was able to use his hands against the right tackle to beat him around the edge and force an underthrown pass on third down.

However, these types of plays where Carter beats a block can be rare.

Where he needs work

While Carter has incredible athletic ability, he is undersized for a pass rusher. He came in at 250 pounds at the Combine, which is just the 11th percentile for edge rushers. The lack of weight can show up when he’s forced to shed a blocker both against the run and the pass. Combine that with hand usage that needs to be refined and Carter can be an easy player to take out of a play.

The play below came against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. Carter was a down defensive end going against the left tackle. He was quick to use his hand off the line, but as he tried a swim move to get into the backfield, there was little behind it and the tackle was able keep himself in front of Carter and contain the inside arm to keep the passing lane open that was used for the touchdown pass.

Carter tries to use his speed to overmatch bigger linemen, but when he goes against ones that can handle it — like he will in the NFL — his speed doesn’t come across as an advantage. Below is a speed rush against Alabama in the National Championship Game. Carter tried to jump off the line go right around the edge, but the tackle never let Carter get around him.

It’s not just offensive linemen who were able to take Carter out of plays. He’s struggled to get off blocks from tight ends...

...and even running backs picking up the rush.

How it translates

These things can be coachable, though. Carter could put on a little weight to a point he has more to put some more strength in his game, but not so much that it takes away his speed advantage. James Bettcher also isn’t afraid of using speedy undersized players on his defense. Haason Reddick played at 235 pounds as a linebacker last year, though Reddick was a more advanced technical pass rusher. But this is what the offseason program is for. Carter has a rookie minicamp, OTAs, and training camp to refine these moves. It also helps that he’ll be able to stick to one position. In his introductory press conference, Carter said his versatility in Georgia’s defense made him ready for everything, but also limited the impact he could have as a pure pass rusher.

My numbers don’t say “elite pass rusher” like I feel like I am, but that’s because I was in a defense that I did a lot of things. Coming into a 3-4 defense, I’ll be right at home. This is what I do. I learned probably five positions in the 3-4, so I can do it. I played nickel, I played SAM, I played JACK, defensive end, inside linebacker sometimes. I had to know what the secondary was doing, how we were rotating, what the front guys were doing, if they had any [stunts] going on. Being at Georgia really helped prepare me a lot for any defense I’ll come to face with.

The coaches and front office are also aware of what needs work and that’s the first step in making Carter the pass rusher he has the potential to become. Gettleman also noted it in his press conference:

At the end of the day, no he doesn’t have ginormous sack numbers, not a lot of these guys do. A lot of these kids don’t have pass rush plans, pass rush variety and that’s our job to teach him that. But Lorenzo has great speed off the edge, he’s explosive, and we really believe he’s going to help be part of that pressure.

Now he’s under the tutelage of James Bettcher, who has been able to turn established pass rushers like Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Chandler Jones into dominant outside linebackers. He has the clay to mold in Carter.

Your belief in Carter to develop probably goes hand-in-hand with the amount of belief you have in Bettcher as a coach. The Giants are putting a lot of faith in both for 2018 and hopefully beyond.