Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Chris Carter is in the final year of his contract, but the front office isn’t exactly knocking down his door to ensure that they have his exclusive rights heading into 2015.
To be fair, they didn’t do that for Jason Worilds a year ago either, even though he was being moved into the starting lineup. After an eight-sack surge that took place mostly in the second half of the year, the fifth-year pass rusher is now playing for close to $10 million this season and is currently scheduled to hit free agency again next year.
Don’t expect Carter to follow a similar path, though. In fact, right now he’s fighting just to stay on the roster, as he has the past two years. Were it not for one standout performance in the final preseason game last year against current McDonald’s employees, the Steelers may well have gone another way.
The fourth-year outside linebacker is facing that scenario once again, for the third time in his four seasons, and he might not be as lucky this year. In 2012, he faced undrafted free agent Adrian Robinson. The Steelers decided to keep both. He survived by the skin of his teeth last year edging out Alan Baxter. Now he has to contend with Howard Jones.
One thing the rookie undrafted free agent du jour does have going for him is his previous special teams experience, which would go a long way toward unseating a veteran.
A small-school pass rusher originally recruited as a wide receiver, the coaching staff moved him across the line of scrimmage where he learned to play defense. Because of that, he can still be a raw prospect, but his athletic potential is impressive.
As we have seen from Alex Kozora’s training camp reports, Jones has flashed often, to the point that he has been rewarded with higher-value reps sprinkled in here and there, which is a good sign.
While Kozora mentioned that he can spend too much time on the ground as a pass rusher, he also reported that the rookie has the wherewithal to work on his weaknesses, and to that end he spent part of a recent practice working with Joey Porter dropping into coverage.
I don’t believe that Carter can afford to deliver the status quo this season and still maintain his roster spot. He will have to show that he has improved and developed since last season in addition to continuing to contribute on special teams.
It’s not only Jones after his job, either. Vic So’oto is still lurking, and don’t be surprised if Jordan Zumwalt enters the competition for the fourth outside linebacker slot. The fact that Terence Garvin, the presumptive fifth inside linebacker, also plays outside could even help Zumwalt’s case of bumping Carter off the roster.
With Carter not under contract after this season, it gives the Steelers all the more reason to start looking elsewhere. With Arthur Moats having leapfrogged him in the depth chart, a rookie wouldn’t necessarily be one snap away from starting, which could make the team more inclined to take a chance on carrying one, though by the same token, the practice squad eligibility of the rookies must also factor into the decision.