ATHENS, Georgia — There are several talent evaluators in the NFL who believe Jalen Carter is the best player available in the NFL draft. But whether he’s draft first or fifth or somewhere significantly south depends in large part on whether: 1) he has a significant physical and mental turnaround from where he appears to be now, or 2) a team on his talent bets and bets on him will be the player he can be.
Georgia held its Pro Day for the top candidates eligible for the draft on Wednesday. It’s one in an important series of events for players who have an effective four-month interview to showcase the best versions of themselves.
But the best version of Jalen Carter wasn’t there. NFL personnel officials, coaches and members of the media in attendance saw an overweight Carter huff and puff his way through the few drills set up for defenders at Georgia’s indoor practice facility. He did not compete in any other skill tests, nor did he compete in the 40-yard dash. He also, unsurprisingly, chose not to speak to the media like other participating Bulldogs players did.
Carter weighed 323 pounds, according to a league source who was granted anonymity so he could speak freely. That’s 13 pounds heavier when he was listed during the Georgia season. It’s also nine pounds heavier than the 314 he weighed at Exploration Combine two weeks ago. It definitely wasn’t nine pounds of extra muscle. He looked limp. He looked excessively out of breath after the exercises. He looked like a risk to any team that might decide to give him a $20+ million signing bonus.
Some NFL officials believe Carter’s ideal playing weight is under 310 pounds to best utilize his pass rushing skills and athleticism. Enormously talented players cannot achieve their athletic projections by turning their bodies into temples of doom. This Wednesday followed Carter’s decision not to train at the combine, which makes it worse even though he did interviews with individual teams there.
“Anyone taking it needs to know what they’re getting into,” the league source said. “Everyone has to do their due diligence and then make a decision.”
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At his peak, Carter is a dominant player who had a viral moment in the SEC championship game when he lifted LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels with one arm and tossed up the No. 1 shield with the other hand. He was a First-Team All-American, All-SEC, and All-Everything Every NFL Team Needs and Wants.
But there are important questions now.
There’s no way we can know where this is going. Aside from the two misdemeanors Carter is accused of — racing and reckless driving, stemming from the accident that killed Georgia teammate Devin Willock and recruiting assistant Chandler LeCroy — the main questions about Carter since of the season among pro scouts in connection with his consistency and work ethic.
In contrast, as Georgia coach Kirby Smart reiterated Wednesday, the defense has struggled with injuries throughout the season and should be lauded for being the opposite of lazy.
“I get a lot of questions about Jalen, which was probably inevitable anyway,” Smart said. “I got a lot of questions about (#1) Travon Walker when he came out. But with the (accident) situation there are probably more questions and more direct questions and I’m just trying to be honest and talk about the experiences we’ve had here. Jalen didn’t have to come back to play after either his first or second injury and both times he wanted to get over that injury and asked us to use him in games where he was injured. So the competitive spirit that he showed was really good.”
Here’s the problem, and it applies to Stetson Bennett’s public intoxication arrest in Dallas in late January. NFL teams now count points – not just how you look, but how you behave. Deciding who to spend a draft pick on and who to give money to is difficult enough. But when a guy does stupid things in public – and it’s a player like Carter who can affect the course of a game – it gives a team pause.
And Wednesday didn’t look good. There were already lingering questions about where Carter might be psychologically after the accident and how he’d been acting in the suddenly negative spotlight.
Even Smart admitted: “I can only imagine knowing what he’s dealing with internally, as a survivor of a tragic accident, knowing the outcome of that accident. There are some mental health issues out there that you need to be able to help with. I can’t talk about what he’s going through. He must answer these questions. But we will definitely try to support him as much as possible.”
Stetson Bennett, dealing with his own questions, defended Carter. He called him “special” and “a rock”.
“We know what comes with the territory, where we are now and things that are going to come out and situations that we put ourselves in and how we can be responsible,” Bennett said. “It’s our job to be a grown man. So I think he understands. … knows that he is the best on the pitch, but still does everything right. He’s in the right gaps for the backers to pass. He doesn’t mind defending the run. Obviously can come after the quarterback. It’s sudden, it’s strong in its suddenness. Just the right footwork. When you look at him, he’s always in a position of power. That’s why he blows people off the line.”
All right – when Carter is at his best. But that wasn’t the Carter we saw on Wednesday. He has a month before the draft to get in shape and address any concerns. He’s got a month to realize he’s in the middle of an interview and just walked in wearing a t-shirt and flip flops and looking like he just rolled out of bed.
(PhotoTodd Kirkland / Getty Images)