Malik Carney’s time is up in Chapel Hill, and he’ll be hoping to hear his name called during the NFL Draft next weekend to start the next chapter of his football career. Along with offensive lineman William Sweet, Carney was one of two Tar Heels to be invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. The combine was two months ago, Carolina’s Pro Day has come and gone, and Carney has done all he can do to improve his stock. Let’s take a look at what he could provide an NFL team:
Carney came to North Carolina in the class of 2014 out of Alexandria, Virginia. Carney signed with North Carolina along with T.C. Williams High teammate Jeremiah Clarke. First of all, with Clarke and Carney leaving Chapel Hill, it’s important that their contributions to Carolina football are never forgotten. We must always, always, remember the Titans, as it were.
Carney was a three-star prospect when he arrived on campus. He redshirted his first year in Chapel Hill and only appeared in three games his redshirt freshman year. In his next year, however, he came onto the scene in a major way. In both his sophomore and junior seasons, Carney had 5.5 sacks while averaging 52 tackles and over 10 tackles for loss per season across the two years.
Carney’s senior campaign was pretty spectacular. Despite missing four games due to “Sneakergate,” he still set personal bests with 6 sacks, 60 tackles, and 5 forced fumbles to go along with 12 tackles for loss. As Carolina’s defense struggled to create turnovers all season, those 5 forced fumbles stand out more than any other stat, including the career high in sacks.
Carney’s highlight plays match the production previously listed. He was mostly used as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end in Carolina’s base 4-3 defense, but in obvious passing situations he showed the ability to rush from space in a two-point stance. Carolina’s interior defensive line depth was hampered in 2018 due to injuries and suspensions, and because of that, Carney was given the platform on occasion to show he can also rush the passer from the defensive tackle position as well. Versatility along the entire defensive line might be his biggest strength, and was a highlight that stood out to me reviewing his 2018 season.
Carney has really good use of his hands and several pass rushing moves that allow him to win 1v1 battles with offensive tackles. Coming off of stunts, he has a really quick spin move that is hard for interior offensive linemen to keep up with. His spin isn’t quite as effective versus tackles, but he has plenty of moves for them as well. He can speed rush off the outside shoulder, bull rush with the strength that got him to 25 reps on the bench press, and he’s even shown he can cut back inside and cross a tackle’s face, an extremely advanced move, if the tackle is cheating too much to the outside.
Carney shines in run defense, as evidenced by his high TFL numbers. Other than his sure tackling, I want to point out a specific skill he has: On read option plays, he does a really good job of keeping his outside arm free, forcing any stretch plays back inside where his help defense is. He stays flat to the line of scrimmage and doesn’t over-pursue if his responsibility is containment. The ability to defend the read option properly was a big part of his collegiate success.
The NFL these days is all about exploiting market inefficiencies, and there’s no bigger market inefficiency than productive players on rookie contracts. It works best with quarterbacks (Seahawks pre-Wilson extension, Eagles, Rams, and maybe the Browns this year), but we’ve seen productive rookie non-QB classes help carry teams to success too, in the cases of New Orleans, Denver, and Minnesota. This means that the most important thing that NFL teams are looking for with edge rushers later in the draft are traits that will translate immediately to on-field success within their defensive schemes. You can’t bet on starters and Pro Bowl players on Day 3, where Carney is currently being projected, but by zoning in specific traits that will translate to the big leagues, you can at least mine cheap production, which translates to success
This really applies for Carney, because I think he’s extremely scheme versatile. As teams are looking for scheme fits later in the draft, his ability to rush the passer multiple different ways, key in on the run, and defend against run-pass options (which, as you know if you’ve ever heard Chris Collinsworth speak, are all the rage right now) are what could convince a team to pull the trigger on him next week.
Part of the reason that Carney has such a diverse set of pass rushing tools is out of necessity. There are plays where Carney gets washed completely out of the play on pass rush because of his relatively slight size for a 4-3 end (He measured in at the Combine at 6’2, 251 pounds, in the 14th percentile for edge rushing prospects). At times, if he tries to speed rush the tackle, then Carney will get pushed too far upfield and is taken out of the play completely. His development of rip moves and a decent bull rush has served as a good counter to his default speed rush and bodes well for his future.
By the same token, Carney seems to have developed advanced hand technique and become a high IQ pass rusher because of his relative lack of physical tools. He knows how to set up offensive tackles as well as developing multiple ways to beat them because he can’t consistently win with just speed or power. He has learned to use a variety of tools to be successful as a pass rusher. But the point stands that with his size, he’ll primarily be a speed rusher in the NFL, and in the big leagues, if a tackle doesn’t feel threatened by your speed then you’re fighting an uphill battle with everything else. Carney will have to prove that his speed rush can be effective against NFL-caliber offensive tackles.
Below is every snap from his game against North Carolina State. As you’ll see, Carney makes some spectacular plays, but also is schemed out of the play or just washed out completely at times as well, and that’s the worrying part about his projection.
Carney’s performance at the NFL combine matched what showed up on tape. Carney would be an undersized 4-3 defensive end in an NFL scheme. His best fit is most likely as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. In that situation he’d primarily be a pass rusher, but he’d be asked to drop into coverage at times as well. Pass coverage is something that he did do at North Carolina, but not frequently. Here’s his Mockdraftable spider chart:
The team that picks Carney up will undoubtedly be expecting that he’ll be able to get at least a little bigger and stronger even though as a redshirt senior he’s probably close to maxed, and with more reps become more comfortable in pass coverage.
I feel confident saying Carney will be with a team for training camp, whether he’s drafted or gets signed as a priority free agent. The question is, of course, whether he can make a Week 1 roster. He has the skill set to make a team, but he’s going to need to show that everything he showed at North Carolina, even some of the things he didn’t get to do much, can be a consistent part of his repertoire.
When making final roster decisions, NFL teams often look at a player’s versatility, including their ability to play multiple positions and whether they can contribute on special teams. NFL teams need players who can step in and take on multiple responsibilities in case of injury, ejection, or whatever else might happen.
Carney can absolutely do that. He played from multiple spots at UNC and showed good things at all of them, he has experience on special teams due to Larry Fedora’s insistence that nobody starts until they’ve played on special teams, and he’s developed a good football IQ for anything new he may be asked for. He was a productive college player and has the tools to translate some of that production into being a good NFL player. He’ll hope to prove that to an NFL team this summer.