Secret Superstar: Alex Carrington
Pete Damilatis dives into the Buffalo Bills defensive line and finds one of the NFL's promising young pass rushers.
Secret Superstar: Alex Carrington
This time last year, newcomers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson made the Buffalo Bills one of the winners of the offseason. They were supposed to lift Upstate New York football out of its 12-year slumber, one sack at a time. Yet, as is often the case in the NFL, the shiny new toys of the spring lose their luster come the fall. Williams’ play fell short of his pay, and Anderson had the worst PFF grade of any 4-3 defensive end when his season ended in October. However, we shouldn’t let their disappointing performances condemn Buffalo’s entire front four.
While the Bills’ new free agents flopped, they overshadowed a very good season by Buffalo’s defensive tackles. That unit recorded the fifth-most defensive stops of any DT group in the league, and the second-most quarterback pressures. Much of the credit goes to Kyle Williams, recently named one of our Top 25 players of 2012, and Marcell Dareus. But just as productive off the bench was the Bills’ Secret Superstar, Alex Carrington. A small-school standout who seemed out of place in Buffalo’s shifting defensive line, this third-year pro found a home in 2012 and has emerged as one of the league’s most promising young pass-rushing DTs.
Sun Belt Superstar
A player at Arkansas State needs big production and big talent to be noticed by the NFL, and Carrington had both. As a 4-3 DE in college, his 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2008 earned him the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year award. He followed that up with a solid senior season, where his nine sacks tied for the conference lead. A strong showing at the Senior Bowl ensured that he would be a target for teams in the early rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft.
At 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds, Carrington brought a powerful bullrush and held up well in run defense at the point of attack. However, scouts didn’t see the burst off the snap that they’d like for an edge rusher. When the Bills drafted him in the third round, Carrington seemed to be the ideal two-gap, five-technique DE for their new 3-4 defense.
Lost In The Shuffle
Unfortunately for Carrington, the Bills’ move to a new defensive scheme was not a smooth one. During the next two seasons, Buffalo continually switched between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts in unsuccessful attempts to fix their porous run defense. In his first game as a rookie, Carrington played 19 of his 25 snaps as a 3-4 DE, but by the end of the season, he’d spent 51.9% of his total snaps on the outside as a 4-3 DE.
The Bills’ amorphous alignments continued into 2011, with disastrous results for their young lineman. Although Carrington excelled as an edge defender in college, he was overmatched at that position in the pros. Still playing significant snaps on the outside, the second-year lineman earned a -11.7 overall grade and finished with nine straight negatively-graded games. Mustering just seven QB pressures on the season, his 2.8 Pass Rushing Productivity was the worst mark of any 4-3 DE in the league with at least 150 passing snaps. However, it’s noteworthy that five of his pressures came when he was lined up against a guard or center. Perhaps the Bills coaching staff saw this as well, because they soon made a shift that would turn Carrington’s career around.
More Than A Megahand
Whether it was a byproduct of Williams and Anderson’s arrival or the coaches’ realization that his bull-rushing style was more suited for the interior, Carrington didn’t play a single snap as an edge defender in 2012. The third-year pro lined up exclusively as a 4-3 DT or 3-4 DE, and he quickly warmed up to his new role. In Week 2, Carrington beat Jon Asamoah, one of the league’s better right guards, for a sack and two QB hurries. In perhaps the most impressive play of his young career, with 7:03 left in the second quarter, he shoved Asamoah 5 yards into the backfield, threw him to the ground, and strip-sacked QB Matt Cassel.
Four weeks later versus the Arizona Cardinals, Carrington knocked QB Kevin Kolb out of the game late in the fourth quarter. In the final play of regulation, he blocked a 38-yard field goal to force overtime, which the Bills would go on to win. It was after that game that Stevie Johnson dubbed him, “Megahand.” Though not the most creative moniker (while we’re at it, why not “Blocktimus Prime?”), the nickname was certainly appropriate. Carrington blocked three more kicks in 2012 to set a franchise single-season record, and finished 2012 with the highest PFF grade by a special teamer.
Nevertheless, Carrington’s breakout season wasn’t confined to special teams. He earned a +8.7 overall grade on defense, with only three negatively-graded games. He averaged a pressure every 10 pass rushes, and his 7.8 PRP tied for the 10th-highest mark of any DT. Though he still graded negatively versus the run, he improved upon his 2011 performance and had some bright spots, like a defensive stop on 4th-and-1 in his final game of the season.
Uncertainty in 2013
Carrington’s breakout was one of the bright spots of the Bills’ 2012 season, but his role is again unclear in his upcoming contract year. Williams and Dareus are entrenched as starters, and newcomer Alan Branch will certainly demand significant snaps, particularly if he returns to the form that made him out sixth-best graded DT of 2011. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has promised to install a “hybrid” defense, which could be a good thing if it takes advantage of Carrington’s versatility as a 4-3 DT or 3-4 DE, or a bad thing if again pushes him to the outside. Here’s hoping that the Bills place personnel before scheme, and set their Secret Superstar up for success in 2013.
Follow Pete on Twitter @PFF_Pete