Some positions and some players are simply destined to never get any column inches. 3-4 nose tackles get very little in the way of love from the media and it takes a very special player–who tends to be of a more disruptive nature–to get anything in the way of ink. Combine that with sharing a defensive line with two players like Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, two disruptive upfield atypical 3-4 defensive ends, and you know that you’re unlikely to get much of a look in for any credit. Further that by playing as a backup and it is almost a dead certainty that your performances will be overlooked.
That is the fate that befell our Secret Superstar for the Arizona Cardinals in his rookie season of 2011. The pairing of Dockett and Campbell are known league-wide for being forces in getting upfield, but their run defense is lacking and, without the aid of other players doing some grunt work, is destined to be the Achilles Heel of a defense. That is the work that David Carter quietly put in during his debut season in the NFL, backing up two players that he outperformed this season. A second-year nose tackle was our Secret Superstar for Arizona last season but hopefully Carter will fare a little better than Dan Williams did in 2011.
Carter arrived into the frenzy that is pre-draft workouts with very little fanfare. Emerging from a steadily declining UCLA football program as an interior lineman who doesn’t get up the field, recording only 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss during his collegiate career, there was almost no buzz around him at all. He had such little notice, in fact, that he needed a strong showing at the East-West Shrine Game to elevate his stock to that of a draftable talent. The Cardinals pulled the trigger on Carter in the sixth round, adding him to a platoon of defensive linemen who were battling for scraps in terms of playing time behind Dockett and Campbell who typically dominate the snap counts on the Arizona defensive line.
Carter was quickly thrust into the battle at nose tackle to provide competition and depth behind former first round selection Dan Williams. He did enough to clinch his spot on the Cardinals’ 53 man roster at the final cut down ahead of the start of the season but with Williams ahead of him on the depth chart, he was on a hiding to nothing in terms of trying to grab a starting spot from Week 1.
Stuck on the Depth Chart
So Carter entered the season second on the Cardinals’ depth chart at nose tackle and carved a niche for himself playing behind Williams and collecting between 10 and 20 snaps per game. The low snap count due in large part to the Cardinals’ nickel defense taking the nose tackle off of the field, meaning that Carter could only ever spell Williams in base defenses. Even so, Carter was a very positive influence, providing some occasional push from the nose tackle spot and some consistent play up the middle in run defense.
The only real blot on Carter’s copybook early in the season was a handful of plays in run defense where New York’s Kevin Boothe got the better of him. That included one block late in the third quarter where Boothe took him to the ground as Carter was caught off balance on 5-yard Brandon Jacobs carry straight through the middle. However, he balanced that poor series of plays in run defense in that game by recording a dominant sack–the first of his career–off of Boothe. Carter made a quick step to Boothe’s right and quickly drove through that shoulder to dive at Eli Manning, taking down the Super Bowl MVP and swatting the ball loose to force a fumble and set up a short touchdown drive for the Cardinals.
Considering his seamless transition, looking completely at home in the heart of the Cardinals’ defense, you would have been excused for thinking that when the Cardinals lost Dan Williams to injury Carter would have vaulted into a starting slot. As it happened, Arizona made the somewhat puzzling decision of replacing Williams–lost to a broken left arm–with Nick Eason. The former Steeler had been playing as a reserve defensive end for the Cardinals but was vaulted ahead of Carter into the starting lineup at nose tackle. This left Carter in the same role he had occupied behind Williams, but rather than getting downhearted at being passed up by a journeyman, he kept his head down and maintained his early-season form.
His late-season form, however, is what should have Cardinal fans excited as he put in his best games in run defense against the 49ers, Browns, and Bengals during the final month of the season. In that trio of games, Carter took advantage of some favorable matchups to record half of his defensive stops from the season (five of his 10) in those three games. Carter made three tackles for losses against the AFC North pairings, but perhaps more impressive was the way in which he got the better of Jonathan Goodwin of the 49ers, one of the better run blocking centers in the league.
Carter picked up both of his stops in the Cardinals’ Week 14 win over San Francisco off of Goodwin’s blocks. His tackle on Kendall Hunter for a 1-yard gain late in the first quarter showed that not only can he stand up blockers to plug the A-gaps on runs straight up the middle, but he also has the ability to work off of blocks laterally when offenses try to stretch the ground game sideways–plays which can nullify bigger, less athletic nose tackles.
Waiting for a Chance to Come
Carter showed his patience last season and he will likely have to again this season, but his late-season form should ensure that he is not passed up again should Dan Williams go down with another injury. Reports out of Arizona OTAs, however, suggest that Williams is managing his weight better this offseason which may allow him to show the form that made him our Cardinals Secret Superstar in 2011. Patience is the key for Carter who–even if he takes the starting spot in Arizona–will still be somewhat of a secret having to share the defensive line with Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. If Carter gets the chance to show his talents over more snaps, though, expect the Cardinals’ interior run defense to quietly improve as a result of the grunt work being put in by the Cardinals’ Secret Superstar.
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