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A Look at Jets Draft Pick Michael Carter RB

A splash play maker in a small package

North Carolina v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Jets drafted two players named Michael Carter on day three of the NFL Draft. Amazingly both players are rather diminutive at about 5’ 8” in height. One Michael Carter is a 5th round pick (#154), a slot corner with impressive speed out of Duke: Michael Carter II. The other Michael Carter is a running back out of North Carolina who has some wiggle to his game along with good speed and elusiveness. This is the player we will profile.

Michael Carter was part of a dynamite running back duo at North Carolina. He teamed up with Javonte Williams (2nd round pick, #35 by Denver) to create a thunder and lightning tandem for the Tar Heels. Williams is a bigger running back (5’ 10”, 212 pounds), so he was the thunder, blasting through arm tackles while amassing 1,140 yards in 11 games. Carter was the lightning, totaling 1,245 yards on one less carry than Williams in 11 games. Carter has just average speed (4.50/40), but he has great acceleration to explode through a hole from near a dead stop. He averaged about a half yard more per game in 2020 than Najee Harris (pick #24 Pittsburgh) even though he received more than five less rushes a game than Harris. In fact Carter led the entire FBS in yards per carry (7.98) in 2020 for players with more than 60 attempts on the year.

Carter was a dynamic player as a sophomore at Navarre High School in northwest Florida whose career was put in jeopardy after a horrible knee injury in the 3rd game of his junior year. “My PCL is torn completely. I have partial tears in my LCL and meniscus,” Carter said at the time. With his future in doubt he decided to work hard on his rehab to come back strong from his injury. He took strength from his teammates and community, then went to work.

Carter went on to say. “Honestly, I’m not down or anything, My teammates and I just have fun. We still roast each other, we still enjoy each other’s company like nothing happened. My team has been behind me through it all. They are the realest group of guys I know. I love them, I really do. I’m hungry like a defensive lineman at a buffet for next season. All I’ve gotten is support from everyone in the area and even in different states. You have no idea how much of an impact that’s had on me.”

He came back as a senior in style, amassing 2,536 rushing yards and 45 TDs on his way to being named Florida Class 6A (3rd highest of 9 Florida school classifications) Mr. Football and USA Today offensive player of the year. Florida, along with Georgia, Texas, Michigan and California have some of the best high school football programs in the nation. In some of these areas football is closer to a religion than a sport. To be a standout player in these places you have to be special.

At North Carolina he was a prolific producer on the field with back to back 1,000 yard rushing seasons during his last two years, along with 46 receptions for 421 yards and 4 TDs, despite being in a near 50/50 time share with Williams. Part of my draft report on Carter read:

Carter is a tough, diminutive RB with quick feet, great vision, soft hands and big play ability. He was 4th in the FBS in rushing yards despite having almost 100 less carries than the 3 players ahead of him. Carter has a quick burst with surprising play speed for such an undersized runner. He runs inside without fear, he stays with the play and does not bounce the play outside prematurely. He had over 80 receptions in his career, a reliable receiver with big play capabilities. His smaller stature makes it hard for 2nd and 3rd level defenders to find him while he reads the blocks to find the correct rushing lane. Many times Carter pops out into the clear, surprising defenders who could not track him. He can make a tackler miss in the hole, he can create space to run with the tiniest crease. He has a very low center of gravity, he is not easy to take down and he has surprising power to pull away from sure tacklers. He can stop on a dime, change direction then get back to top speed in only a few steps. He is not a fumbler, 1 fumble over the last two years (360 touches) no lost fumbles. Solid build with great power for his size. Only 596 touches in 4 years so there is plenty of tread left on the tires. Only injury of note in 4 years was a broken wrist during sophomore season. He is a splash play waiting to happen in the right offense.

Carter has the type of skill set to work well in a Mike La Fleur offense. The wide zone-play action passing attack needs quick, fast, athletic players who can be super effective in space, while being a part of a dominant rushing attack that counters its passing attack primarily off that action.

Let’s take a look at Carter in action to see first hand his skill set.

North Carolina has a prolific zone-read offense that was 9th in the nation in scoring at 41 points a game. They ran the ball 41 times and passed 30 times a game on average. They averaged 537 yards of total offense a game and 7.6 yards per play.

This first clip is of Carter in the zone-read offense against Boston College. This is an easy read for the quarterback as he is watching the left defensive end on the play. The defensive end is left unblocked. When the quarterback puts the ball out for Carter, if the defensive end crashes down the line to stop the run the quarterback keeps the ball then runs around the edge to the vacated spot of the defensive end for a great gain.

In this instance the defensive end stops to wait to see the action on the play. He is not guessing or overreacting, he is reading the play himself. When he hesitates, that’s the cue for the quarterback to hand the ball to Carter. The defensive end really never stops his feet, he flies down the line to stop the run but is barely able to get a hand on Carter because of his excellent acceleration.

Speed is nice, but near the line of scrimmage it’s quickness combined with acceleration that wins the day. When you hear people talking about speed they usually are talking 40 yard dash times. If you are talking about his 40 time Carter is considered slow for a running back when you take into account his weight. He ran a 4.50 40 yard time on his pro day. Yet if you look at his scores for quickness and agility Carter is off the charts. Carter’s 3.98 second short shuttle is the 19th-fastest time among running backs since 1999, and his 6.87 second three-cone drill would have been the fastest among all rushers at last year’s combine by a huge margin of .08 seconds. These are stop-start, side to side type of agility drills.

Look at the play again. Carter gets to the line then by the defensive end no trouble. Once he comes out through the line you have the safety squared up on Carter looking to make a tackle. Carter runs straight at him then cuts off to the side. It doesn’t look like much, but the safety (in perfect position) doesn’t lay a hand on Carter as he shoots by. He is only tackled because the move around the safety put him in the path of other defenders who make the tackle, albeit another 8 yards down the field. Also notice the great body lean. Carter always falls forward which will add a few yards to every carry.

This next play will illustrate this fact even better but it also shows an unappreciated skill by many observers; it’s the vision of the player. This clip may be my favorite highlight in all the film I watched on Carter over the last three months.

Carter gets the handoff, then immediately has to avoid the penetration of the blitzing linebacker, resulting in Carter actually moving back the opposite way of his intended path. He then runs to the outside of the line, presses the hole to get the defenders to commit to a path, then quickly jump cuts out of the hole, around the edge then into the end zone. This is an action of start, stop, backtrack, start, press, jump cut, run, touchdown, all within 20 yards and primarily done with quickness and agility.

Carter is a very capable inside runner even at his diminutive size but he will not be used much in this type of running with the Jets. He is far too small to take the pounding of NFL type players in the interior of the defense. Carter was drafted to play in space (which he is more than capable of doing) which will help keep him available for the entire season. Carter is also used to playing in a time share arrangement, so coming in and out of the lineup (which is a skill in itself) will not be foreign to him. Mike La Fleur used as many as 4 running backs in a rotation while at San Francisco but he might not have enough players with the proper skill set to do that here with the Jets. I am sure the Jets will be looking at the waiver wire for running backs who fit their specific needs going forward.

This next clip shows some of the vision I mentioned along with that lateral agility that makes Carter so special, particularly in space. On this play the read option is merely a ruse to hold the backside defensive end while the left tackle pulls around to become a kick out blocker in the hole for Carter. The fake also keeps Carter in the backfield long enough for the tackle to make it to the right side of the line and kick out the traffic as Carter arrives.

Unfortunately the play side safety is pinching at the line of scrimmage as the play begins and takes up residence in the hole that Carter wants to travel through. He is right there to make a tackle for no gain on an ordinary running back. Not so with Carter, who uses his elite lateral speed and quickness to go right around him, then down the field. The safety is able to make the tackle, but only after Carter picked up 36 yards.

As Carter is coming to the line he can see the second level of the defense, then decide where he wants to go once he breaks the line. This is vision, it’s what all quality running backs do. They look for the next path before you get past the first wave of opponents. The reason being they have such confidence in breaking or avoiding that first line of defense they want to know which way to cut into the open once they break past the line. For a running back vision, quickness, and agility are more important than straight line speed, yet speed is the first thing many fans want to know about a running back.

This next play is not some great yardage gainer but it is an example of what the Jets want to do not only with Carter but all their athletic players moving forward. This play starts on the far left hash, then moves across the width of the field to the sideline to the right. This will be part of the La Fleur offense, the desire to make a defense cover the entire field, laterally as well as vertically. Throw in some athletic playmakers and every play like this has a chance of being a splash play. When you force a defense to move they can have hiccups in their coverage, players out of position or simply a defender slipping to the ground or losing his footing. That can allow a huge void in the defense that great players can exploit.

Now in the NFL the hash marks are closer together, so the side to side influence on the play will not be as pronounced. Yet the same principle will apply as the Jets will force a defense to cover the entire field. Even this play that doesn’t look like much is a 15 yard gain on a play that is super safe and easy to run, with everyone knowing their blocking assignments on the play. It also allows the offensive line a respite of a sort; you can’t make them pass block for 4 seconds every play or continually drive block. Here the defense is running to the ball while the offensive line doesn’t have to hold a block. Plays like this have a lot of upside for an offense with very little risk.

What the La Fleur offense needs is players with one-cut ability on an outside zone stretch run. Sounds simple to the laymen but it is a specific skill set that is harder to find than you might think. Last year (when La Fleur was on the 49ers staff) Kyle Shanahan stated that there were about 10 players in the entire NFL with the requisite skill set to be a RB in his offense. He stated that he 49ers had 4 of those 10 players on their roster. This year the Jets added Carter plus Tevin Coleman I believe for just that reason. Here is a sample of that ability Le Fleur is looking for.

This is very nicely done. As he takes the handoff, Carter is watching and waiting for the play to develop. Ideally he wants to make a cut through the hole of the pulling backside guard, which he ends up doing. You see him running laterally. With the play in front of him he sees the hole forming, then ends up cutting off the guard’s backside almost before he makes his block. That is how confident Carter is in his read of the play.

Watch as Carter is moving laterally. You will see him stick his right foot in the ground, which becomes the first step in his propelling himself forward. That foot in the ground is his first step in running forward rather than laterally; no wasted movements or steps. Also he doesn’t just run through the hole, he explodes through it. This is what La Fleur is looking for. Not just a cut and run but a quick cut, then rocket through the hole. You combine great vision with that ability and it will be even more pronounced on a wide stretch zone play with the opportunities for splash plays on every attempt.

Carter is not a skilled route runner and he does not possess great attributes to be a top target in the passing game. He is short (5’ 7 7/8”) with very short arms (29 1/8”) which means a QB has to be spot on in his throws to Carter. Yet that doesn’t really matter as Carter will be a very low option in the passing game. Carter will likely be covered primarily by linebackers, who will not be able to hang with him athletically.

Here is a very, very poorly run wheel route that would have been a TD if not for the heads up play by the outside linebacker to that side.

The route should have been run further into the flat to widen out the inside linebacker who has coverage on the play. Instead the route run alerts the outside linebacker who is in coverage on the wide receiver, who motioned back to the left. The inside linebacker is totally lost in coverage. Everyone is in man coverage then he starts playing zone when Carter flies by him. The quarterback sees this, then fixes his eyes on Carter. Had the quarterback first looked to the flat, he would have held the coverage of the outside linebacker.

Instead the quarterback stares down Carter so the outside linebacker reads the quarterback’s eyes, then drops his coverage of the wide receiver and drops back to cover Carter. Still, all is not lost as the outside linebacker trails woefully behind the play, but the quarterback lofts the ball short and doesn’t lead Carter to the middle of the field, which allows the outside linebacker to make a play on Carter. This turns into a 31 yard play that could have been an easy TD if not for some folly by the quarterback and a nice read by the outside linebacker.

In this next clip Carter is the primary target on the play as the Tar Heels run an obvious pick play that should have been called (it wasn’t) to get Carter open in the flat. This is a 3rd and 11 play with Duke in straight man coverage instead of zone.

With a good throw Carter would have been wide open even without the pick, since the inside linebacker in coverage had a long way to go with Carter headed out into the wide flat at the snap. Carter is not a powerful player by any means but he is solid physically with a low center of gravity. Almost all of his force on the collision is felt by the defender, as Carter knocks him back into the end zone, then scores right at the pylon.

This is an example of how Carter can be an asset in the passing game while not possessing great skill or physical qualities to do so. Of course Carter’s skills in the passing game can be developed with good coaching, if the coaching staff wants to make this a priority.

This next play is a clip of the same play, in the same game but the difference is it’s 4th and 3 and not 3rd and 11 so everyone across the board is in tighter coverage. This also shows how much confidence the coaches have in Carter as a receiver to get open and catch the ball considering they are up 35-7 with less than 3 minutes left in the half. If they had any consternation at all they would have just punted the ball deep instead of going for it at mid field.

The throw is a little high but it is hauled in nicely by Carter. This is a skill the Jets will probably look to nurture going forward as it plays to the strength of Carter. The Jets are going to try and keep Carter as a wide-zone runner or playing somewhere in space to keep him as healthy as possible. We will not see Carter have 15 runs between the tackles like Frank Gore did last year. Even though Carter was that type of runner in college, the NFL is a different game.

Later in the year Carter began to run some better routes, understanding what he is trying to accomplish on each play and who he is looking to influence with his route. I am sure that coaches saw something in the Wake Forest defense that told them that Wake Forest was vulnerable to this play.

Remember that Carter only catches a couple of passes a game so Wake Forest doesn’t consider him a huge threat in the passing game. At the snap you will see both wide receivers to the right side immediately go out, then cut over to the left of the field in deep crossing routes. Carter floats into the flat as the inside linebacker comes up in coverage. Once that inside linebacker comes up towards the line of scrimmage he is burnt in coverage. There is no way he could ever keep up with Carter down the sideline or in the open field.

All Carter has to do is hesitate in the flat, wait for the inside linebacker to take the bait, then run by him wide open. This is the 8th game of the season so North Carolina has thrown some new wrinkles into the game plan. I am sure the Jets will look to use Carter similarly, on the perimeter of the offense and in space.

This next play is a simple plan to get your quick, agile, tough to tackle player in space on the edge of the defense. These are not meant to be game changing plays, they are meant to be chain moving plays that keep the defense guessing while the offense matriculates the ball down the field (which is a shout out to the late great Hank Stram).

This is an easy route thrown to a wide open player on the edge of the defense. It gives Carter an opportunity to make a play. Give him enough chances and he will eventually break one. In the meantime this is a positive play that keeps the defense wary of all the offensive players on the field. This is what the Jets will be trying to do and is the reason they selected Carter in the draft.

This last play is not a play the Jets are likely to run for Carter. If they do it will be more of an aberration rather than a staple of the offense. I show it to you only to prove that Carter has decent (not great) speed and that 4.50/40 is not slow for a running back.

This is basic follow your blocks then run to daylight. Fortunately the defense had horrible run fits on the play, which allowed Carter to score a 62 yard TD without being touched. This was a TD in a game of two hand touch.

So there you have the 4th player selected by the Jets with the 107th overall selection in the 4th round. I had Carter as my 101st player on my board so he went nearly exactly where I expected him to go. He is a player with a limited but quality skill set that will work perfectly in the Jets new offensive scheme. This was a quality pick by Joe Douglas as I am sure he was delighted Carter was there when he came to pick in the 4th round. Finding game changing type players in the 4th round who have quality character is rare.

Carter will be used sparingly by the Jets. He will likely get no more than 12-14 touches a game. He only averaged 15 touches a game as a junior and 16.5 as a senior at North Carolina and that was college. This is the NFL which is much more demanding physically and has a much longer season. Even then those touches will either be on outside runs or in space, no reason to subject him to more punishment than that.

If you look at his work usage Carter carried the ball (rushing and receiving) 198 times as a junior and 181 times as a senior (played less games). If he plays in every Jets game this year and gets 12 touches a game then he will have 204 touches for the year. It will be imperative the Jets get him in position to make the most out of every touch and that will be somewhere in space.

I like Carter as a player and I think it was a solid pick by Joe Douglas in the 4th round. This is the way to build a team with small pieces (12 plays a game) but possibly very productive pieces with each move. The Jets are building something very good in my opinion and I can’t even remember when I echoed those thoughts in the past; it was pre Mike Tannenbaum. Probably back to Parcells but that is ancient history. All I care about now is today. I currently like what is going on, I think we could have done better but I still think we are moving forward.

That’s what I think.

What do you think?