The Patriots front 7, especially the linebacker position, could use an upgrade in speed and athleticism overall to be more effective in stopping the run while being able to defend the pass. The Patriots have 3 solid starters at the position in Dont’a Hightower, Marquis Flowers, and Kyle Van Noy, but don’t have a lot of depth behind them. With Hightower’s injury history plus Flowers being an impending free agent after the season, there is a need to groom a LB to take over next year.
One of the players that should be a solid fit is Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter. Carter’s speed, athleticism, and versatility should very much intrigue the Patriots early in the draft. Carter has the size and speed to play both on and off the ball like Hightower and Van Noy do often. Bill Belichick has a history of drafting linebackers early out of the SEC with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and the previously mentioned Hightower. Carter played for Kirby Smart, a former defensive coordinator for Nick Saban in Alabama, who was one Belichick’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland.
vs. Notre Dame 2017
This was an excellent game for Carter, who had his way against Notre Dame’s bookend blockers. Carter showed the ability to anchor the edge in the run consistently to funnel runs inside or make the tackle himself. In the passing game, Carter was disruptive with pressures and made Notre Dame pay dearly every time they didn’t block him on designed screens. He showed excellent closing speed as a tackler. There wasn’t a lot of tape of him dropping into coverage here, mostly because of how effective he was attacking the ball, but he’s athletic enough to drop into coverage as well.
I don’t think Carter is big and strong enough to be a full time edge guy, but the Patriots scheme is perfect for a guy like Carter who is much better when flowing to the ball. Carter played better on the edge than off the ball as a senior, but can do both if asked. In New England, I think he can stand to add 10-15 pounds of muscle to better set the edge against NFL tackles.
Rookie Year Projection
Carter probably will not see a lot of time with the starting lineup early in camp, but given his experience under a similar defensive system to what the Patriots run he doesn’t have a big learning curve. I expect the Patriots to play him a lot on Special Teams, especially on the coverage units, where his speed and tackling abilities are a plus. They will slowly phase him into the offense, mostly to keep guys like Hightower and Van Noy fresh while giving Carter valuable reps. I think by the end of the season Carter could end up seeing 30-40% of the overall playing time at linebacker.
Given Marquis Flowers is a free agent and will likely walk if he has a good year in 2018, the Patriots could be thin at linebacker in 2019. Carter should be the other starting linebacker next to Hightower. Carter will spend a lot of his rookie contract playing on both defense and special teams, playing less on special teams when he becomes a full time starter on defense. The Patriots will likely deploy Carter both on and off the ball as a movable chess piece, similar to how they utilize Hightower and Rob Ninkovich in the past. By the end of his 2nd year, I expect Carter to be a full time starter with Van Noy heading to unrestricted free agency after that season and the Hightower contract having an out that year.
Grade: 5/5 Starter
Player Comp: Jamie Collins
Carter reminds me of a former undersized edge rusher who was a long and rangy athlete that ended up in New England. Unlike Collins, Carter does take his responsibilities on the field seriously and plays within the framework of the defense. I expect a similar career arc for Carter as Collins in Years 1-3.
Draft Projection: 23 or 31
I’m going to guess that most people don’t agree with the draft projection for Carter, but a rangy athlete at the LB position who can handle multiple roles gives the Patriots a guy who can immediately contribute on all 4 downs. Carter can contribute right away as a core ST guy and a part time player on defense while working his way to a full starter. Leighton Vander Esch is a bit more athletic in coverage, although I consider Carter the more polished prospect, which is why he’s the only linebacker I rate ahead of Carter as a fit.