NFL Draft Profile: Bruce Carter

Bruce Carter's athleticism has allowed him to block six punts in his career, including this one against Connecticut in 2008. Getty Images

When North Carolina Tar Heels outside linebacker Bruce Carter decided to return to UNC for his senior season, he told the Raleigh News and Observer:

    "I'm going to come back and finish my education."

On the surface, he may have meant that his work in the classroom wasn't quite complete -- though he'll have enough credits to graduate in December -- but his words ring just as true regarding his work on the football field.

Asked how he plans to improve his game as a senior for the Tar Heels in 2010, Carter's response indicates that this season will be all about putting the finishing touches on a package that should become a fixture on Sundays.

"I want to shape everything up," said Carter, coming off a summer where he was named college football's top "freak" athlete by ESPN's Bruce Feldman, thanks to his eye-opening work in the weight room and on the track. "Work on the small things."

Fortunately, he'll have a considerable amount of help applying these finishing touches.

In fact, Carter says that the person that influences him the most lines up to his right on Saturdays, fellow senior linebacker Quan Sturdivant. "We compete, we watch film together and we push each other," Carter noted. In addition to all of that, both players can find their names on the preseason Bronko Nagurski award watch list (given to the nation's best defensive player) and the Dick Butkus award watch list (given to the top linebacker). The two seem to be closely linked in their head coach's mind, too.

"We're very fortunate to have two marquee linebackers in Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant that are almost synonymous when you say their names because they've been starting since they were true freshmen," Butch Davis told Blue Ribbon. "Their leadership and the things they do in practice, the professional approach they take about trying to get better every day, set a great example for our younger guys."

For Bruce, part of setting that example is returning for his senior year, and it's a decision that's put him on top of many draft pundits' boards. Had Carter elected to declare his eligibility for the NFL after three campaigns in Chapel Hill, he would have been drafted, but probably not on the first night. As it stands, Carter is one of the most heralded linebackers in the country.

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has Carter ranked first amongst draft-eligible outside linebackers. In his first 2011 mock draft, Todd McShay of Scouts Inc. has Carter being selected 10th overall , the only linebacker in the top 10.

So why all the hype? For starters, there's the statistical backup for Carter's placement in the top spot of Feldman's list. He has put up a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash and a 40.5-inch vertical, numbers that compare favorably to many running backs and wide receivers, and would've bested the top linebacker results at the 2010 scouting combine. He has also registered a 374-pound power clean (a UNC record for linebackers), benches 440 pounds and squats 605 pounds, so he can deliver a thump after he tracks his target down.

But he's not just a workout warrior, either. His explosiveness shows up on the turf. Carter has blocked six punts during his career -- including three in one quarter during his sophomore year -- and has returned two interceptions for touchdowns. As a sophomore, he was fourth on the team with 68 tackles, and led the Tar Heels with 11.0 tackles for loss. This past season, he registered the third-highest tackle total on the team with 65, including 7.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

But, there is some work to do.

KC Joyner -- the Football Scientist -- reviewed some game film on the linebacker, and commented that although Carter was "a beast" against screen plays, and quite active in the running game (he was at the point of attack 14 times in the UVa game, for instance), there were times when he had issues shedding blocks.

"He won only two of the POA [point of attack] blocks, so that equals a 14.2 percent POA win rate," Joyner said. "The way I look at metrics for draft prospects is that they should be able to post better numbers in college than a good pro. The idea is that they will likely not do as well against pro competition, so if they can't post better-than-good numbers in college, they aren't likely to post better-than-good numbers in the NFL. The 14.2 percent rate would be OK for pro linebacker, so he didn't do as well as here as would be hoped."

Consistency will also be vital during Carter's final campaign for the Tar Heels. "He may have a ton of physical talent but he doesn't always show it on Saturdays," Joyner added. "He'll need to step up and play hard on a consistent basis this year before I'd sign off on his being a quality high-end draft pick."

Carter says his weight is currently around 240, although his playing weight last season was closer to 230. Looking ahead to the NFL, he's more of a fit in a 4-3 scheme, and will likely switch to a role on the weak side, where his speed, agility and ball-hawking skills will have opposing coaches spiking their headsets. As for the players he models his game after? "Patrick Willis, Jon Beason -- guys that are smaller but dominate," Carter said.

Given how passing-oriented the NFL game has become, Carter's athleticism -- and knack for being around the ball -- could be more important than the pounds he packs on his frame. As the cliché goes, you can't coach speed, and Carter's been blessed with quite a bit. If he can continue to translate his raw tools into skills on the field this season -- and maintain a consistently high level of play -- he'll have molded himself into more of a complete player. And the comparisons to franchise NFL linebackers Willis and Beason will start to come from outsiders before long.

Tim Kavanagh is a frequent author of NFL Rumor Central and periodically writes for ESPN Insider.