IRVING, Texas - So far, Bruce Carter has been everything the Cowboys thought he would be. Last year, that meant he missed nearly half the season and played almost entirely on special teams.
If Carter continues as expected, though, it will mean the defense will be adding another first-round talent in 2012. Now more than 18 months removed from his senior year at North Carolina and the torn ACL that dropped him to Round 2 of the 2011 lottery, Carter has been running with the first-team defense in Organized Team Activities next to Sean Lee and thrilling the Cowboys' coaches and front office.
Blessed with great speed and strength, Carter has excelled in coverage and consistently shown the ability to play sideline-to-sideline against the run, defeat blockers and get into the backfield as a blitzer.
"He's the guy we thought he was when we drafted him," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "It's been a long transition, but he's learning every day, and we're really excited about his progress. ... This work in progress is really on the come. He's been one of our guys out here that's really looked good in this camp.
"I'm seeing a real player now."
Drafting someone who would see just over 40 defensive snaps as a rookie wasn't necessarily a rousing pick at the time, and for Carter it must've been a rather dull entrance into the NFL. But that didn't mean 2011 wasn't valuable. The speedy linebacker never seemed to get frustrated with sitting fourth on the depth chart behind Lee, Bradie James and Keith Brooking.
"You've just got to go with whatever the coaches say. They've got your best interests. Everybody has a job, you've got to just play your role," Carter said. "I guess they felt like I wasn't ready. I kind of agree, from knowing what I know now, from last year, it's kind of like night and day. There's a whole lot you've got to learn, and it's just step by step, piece by piece."
After missing out on the chance for OTAs and minicamps due to the lockout, Carter rehabbed his knee throughout training camp and remained on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list through Week 7. He then got only a couple of weeks to practice, and despite the fact his athleticism far exceeded the veterans, he had no way to know how to play. Not only was Ryan's defense new to Carter, but he was also moving from the outside linebacker position, which he played in college, to an inside role.
"Just being on the field is a huge stride for me," Carter said. "With Rob's scheme there's a lot of moving and shifts. You might be here, and then here, and then over there. You never know. You've just got to study that playbook and just go in there and play."
Coach Jason Garrett constantly preaches the process of daily improvement. Although Carter's path has been different from most young players, he's done what he's needed to do for a chance to win a starting job this year.
"He's made those strides," Garrett said. "From Year 1 to Year 2 is very significant in a player's development, and particularly with a player like that who was watching a lot in Year 1, you just want to see him out there playing. We're giving him every opportunity to do that."
Carter doesn't have to look hard to find an example of another player who spent most of his rookie year watching, then blossoming in his sophomore campaign. Lee, who had his share of knee problems in college, battled injuries in 2010, only to become a revelation in Ryan's first year.
"We've had the conversation about feeling comfortable, kind of knowing what to expect, what everything is about, how hard you need to work and what you need to do to prepare yourself," Lee said. "Starting with the offseason program, he's prepared himself the right way. He's in shape, he's healthy, he's ready to go. And then he's spent a lot of time off the field, studying football, knowing the plays, and he's come in here really prepared."
Like Carter, the Cowboys had graded Lee as a first-round player, but got him in the second. Their two cases aren't exactly the same, but if Carter's approach is similar, the results should be as well.
"Do I see a guy that's going to ascend like (Lee), like a meteoric ascent? Maybe not," Ryan said. "But I know there're some guys getting better each day, and I think you're on the right track with that Bruce Carter, who is an improving player, who's jumping off the page right now."
It's just as the Cowboys expected with Carter, who has followed their timetable to a T. He's gotten healthy, broken in on special teams, learned the defense along the way, and now, finally, has the chance to show what he can do.
"Once you learn the scheme and you have it down pat, that's when you actually can just play and then your ability, the stuff you can do, really comes out," Carter said. "And it shows."