ATHENS, Georgia – There are several talent evaluators in the NFL who believe that Jalen Carter is the best player available in the NFL draft. But whether he goes first or fifth or anywhere significantly further south in the draft 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 sticks to his talent and bets he will be the player he can be.
Georgia held its Pro Day on Wednesday for the top prospects eligible for the draft. It is one in an important series of events for players who have an effective four-month interview to show the best version of themselves.
But the best version of Jalen Carter was not on display. NFL personnel officials, coaches and media members in attendance saw an overweight Carter huffing and puffing through the few drills lined up for defensive linemen at Georgia’s indoor practice facility. He did not participate in any other skill tests, nor the 40-yard dash. Not surprisingly, he also chose not to speak to the media, as 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 than he was listed during Georgia’s season. He’s also nine pounds heavier than the 314 he weighed two weeks ago at the scouting combination. It clearly wasn’t nine pounds of extra muscle. He looked limp. He looked overly breathless after exercises. He looked like a risk to any team that would decide to give him a signing bonus of over $20 million.
Some NFL officials believe that Carter’s ideal playing weight is less than 310 pounds to take full advantage of his pass-rushing skills and athleticism. Hugely talented players can’t reach their athletic projections if they let their bodies become temples of mischief. That Wednesday followed Carter’s decision not to train on the group, making matters worse, although he did interviews with individual teams there.
“Anyone who takes him needs to know what they’re getting into,” the league source said. “Everyone will have 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 while handing over the number 1 board with the other. He was the first team All-American, all-SEC and All-Everything every NFL team needs and wants.
But now there are important questions.
We can’t possibly know where this is going. Aside from the two misdemeanors Carter has been charged with – racing and reckless driving, stemming from the accident that killed Georgia teammate Devin Willock and recruited assistant Chandler LeCroy – the main questions about Carter that have been among pro scouts since this season in related to his consistency and work ethic.
To the contrary, as Georgia coach Kirby Smart reaffirmed on Wednesday, the defensive tackle suffered injuries during the season and should, in fact, be commended 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 (No. 1 pick) Travon Walker when he came out. But with the (accident) situation, there are probably more questions and more direct, and I’m just trying to be honest and talk about the experiences we had here. Jalen didn’t have to come back to play after his first injury, nor after his second injury, and both times he wanted to get over that injury and begged us to put him in games, he was injured. So the competitive nature that he has shown has been really good.”
Here’s the problem, and it also applies to Stetson Bennett’s arrest for public intoxication in late January in Dallas. NFL teams now keep score – not just how you look, but how you act. It’s hard enough deciding who to spend a draft pick on and who to give money to. But when a man does stupid things in public – and it’s a player like Carter who can influence 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 had behaved in the suddenly negative spotlight.
Even Smart acknowledged, “I can only imagine knowing what he’s dealing with internally, as a survivor of a tragic accident, and knowing what the outcome of that accident will be. There are a number of mental health issues you should be able to help with. I can’t talk about what he’s going through. He has to answer those questions. But we will certainly try to support him as much as possible.”
Stetson Bennett, who has his own questions to answer, defended Carter. He called him “special” and “a rock.”
“We know what’s coming with the territory of where we are now, and things that will come out, and situations that we put ourselves in, and how to be responsible,” Bennett said. Our job is to be a grown man. So I think he understands. …Know he’s the best on the field, but still doing things the right way. It’s in the right slots for the lenders to fit. Doesn’t mind defending the flight. Clearly can get behind the quarterback. He is sudden, he is strong in his suddenness. Just the right footwork. When you look at him, he is always in a position of power. That’s why he blows people off the line.”
All accurate – when Carter is at his best. But that wasn’t the Carter we saw on Wednesday. He has a month before the trek to get in shape and ease his worries. He has a month to realize he’s in the middle of a job interview and he’s just walked in wearing a T-shirt, flip flops and looking like he just rolled out of bed.
(Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)