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NFL Draft Profile: Michael Carter

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The Tar Heels’ career leader in yards per carry is taking his talents to the next level

Wake Forest v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Michael Carter, having hung around the periphery of NFL Draft conversations for favor of his more-heralded teammate Javonte Williams, burst onto the scene himself after exploding against Miami to the tune of 308 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, and making plays like this all night long:

The senior running back is now firmly entrenched on Draft boards and is expected to be one of the first five running backs taken, with his stock ranging from the fourth round all the way up to the second. One week before the draft, here’s a rundown of Michael Carter as an NFL Draft prospect: strengths, weaknesses, and the stuff in between.

Overview:

Originally a 3-star recruit as an all-purpose back from Navarre, Florida who was the state’s Mr. Football for 6A competition as a senior, Carter leaves UNC as the school’s all-time leader in yards per rushing attempt (for players with more than 100 attempts) at a staggering mark of 6.6 YPC and ranks fourth in school history in total rushing yards with 3404 over his four years, finding the end zone 22 times on the ground. He was also a fairly prolific receiver, with 82 receptions for 6 touchdowns. The 5’8, 200-pound Carter has been involved in running back timeshares all four years of his college career, with Jordon Brown, Antonio Williams, and most recently Javonte Williams. His first two years, he played second fiddle to Brown and Antonio Williams, and then, as a junior and senior, was one of two featured backs alongside Javonte Williams — leading the team in carries as a junior and having one fewer carry than his teammate in 2020. Carter often played the speed back or 3rd down back role against his teammates’ bulkier, more physical running styles, thanks to his light feet and being well-coached in pass protection.

2020 was easily Carter’s best year, as he set career highs across the board: in yards (1245), yards per attempt (8.0), rushing touchdowns (9), receptions (tied, 25), and receiving yards (267). His rushing yards and yards per attempt numbers were both top-5 in the country among qualifying players, and earned him the accolades of First Team All-ACC and Third Team All-American.

Here’s his Mockdraftable spider graph, with data drawn from his Pro Day:

Mockdraftable

Strengths:

  • Extremely shifty: Carter has phenomenal feet and change of direction skills, as evidenced by both his tape and his shuttle drills, and routinely puts them to use to make defenders look silly. He has an advanced arsenal of moves in the open field, including jukes, spins, dead-legs, a stop-start, and more. This is accentuated by his contact balance, which is much better than you might expect from a running back of his slighter frame. He isn’t easily taken down by defenders who get partial contact on him after he makes them miss, which enables him to maximize yardage from the space he creates.
  • Between the tackles: Carter’s become a much better between-the-tackles runner over the course of his career, and is now able to successfully and ably press the line of scrimmage, set up blockers, and take advantage of seams. He’s also become more judicious about knowing when to bounce runs to the outside; he had a propensity for doing it a bit too often earlier in his career, but now when he does it it’s almost always the right decision, and he has the speed to the corner to do it without getting chopped down. He doesn’t always take the coached route, but he’s not a freelancer, either.
  • Vision: I’ve mentioned it in both the previous sections, so it bears having its own. Both in the open field and between the tackles, Carter is aware of where defenders are and where that means he has to go, and rarely do you find an instance where you see him run and feel like he’s taken the wrong lane even if it wasn’t the right one.
  • Pass catcher: Carter has made huge strides as a route runner and pass-catcher in the past two years. He used to be a rudimentary route-runner with only okay hands, but he’s become very good at running routes out of the backfield and has shown very safe hands on balls that are on his frame, most notably on this catch against Miami (the first play), where he manipulates zone coverage with a slide and then secures a catch over the middle while getting thumped. He even flashed an ability to get open deep if a defender bites on him in the flat.
  • Returner: Carter was UNC’s kickoff return specialist three out of four years in his career and did it ably, with his open-field vision and burst serving him well to the tune of 22.4 yards per return. He’s not a game-breaker at it, but he can get up the field with good blocking and would save coaches a roster spot for a position that’s being legislated out of the game.
  • Intangibles: I give most players a blanket positive here because most players aren’t really problem-creators and seem to get along with their team fine, but Carter is a player whose intangibles are notably positive in my eyes. He’s the kind of player who you look forward to hearing from, because he seems to always have something smart and endearing to say, and I highly encourage you to check out his interview with The Draft Network’s Justin Melo for an example of it. Additionally, he handled a mid-career coaching change with aplomb, and has been nothing but exuberantly positive about every backfield mate he’s shared carries with even though he’s clearly had the ability to carry a team. He’s been a notably good leader for the team through an unprecedentedly tough year and I’m confident he’ll be a fan favorite wherever he ends up.

Mixed:

  • Pass Protection: Carter’s a well-coached pass protector who usually squares up on rushers with good technique, but just because of how slight he is, he doesn’t always generate enough power to really stand up a defender and give his quarterback more than just an extra fraction of a second. If he falls any bit short of perfect, he’s liable to be run over, and it’s a testament to how good he is at what he can do that this wasn’t a regular occurrence and that he was trusted enough by his coaches to be in pass protection regularly.
  • Tackle-Breaking: Carter breaks a lot more tackles than you’d expect from a running back in his mold, thanks to great contact balance and his ability to minimize contact from oncoming defenders. But he’s also liable to get tripped up by minimal contact at times, and he also has carries where he can’t run through a crowded line of scrimmage and goes down fairly easily for 2ish-yard gains. Obviously that’s not the norm, given his career averages, but it does happen — he’s not the constantly raging bull that his teammate is. It’s also fair to wonder if his ability to shed defenders will hold up at the next level.

Weaknesses:

  • Breakaway Speed: Carter recorded a 4.50 second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, which matches what he shows on tape — a running back with good, not great speed. He routinely breaks away from linebackers but gets run down by defensive backs. He’s not really a home-run threat in the open field: He’ll get chunk yardage, but doesn’t hit paydirt all that often. His relatively low touchdown numbers across his career reflect this. Part of those numbers are a result of Javonte Williams vulturing touchdowns, but another part is his not finishing many of his big plays. There are plenty of NFL running backs for whom this is the case, but it is unfortunate for somebody who’s made his name as the “lightning” in a thunder-and-lightning duo. There are exceptions to this, such as his 65-yard house call against Miami and his 22-yard catch-and-run against Duke that he finished by punishing a defender on the goal line, so there’s some hope that in the right positions, he can work on this.
  • Short Yardage: Predictably, Carter isn’t really one to move a pile or push the line of scrimmage when it’s being condensed to minimize penetration. There’s not much more to say here except that it didn’t really hurt UNC, who had Javonte Williams for those situations, but it’s worth noting that an NFL team that drafts him shouldn’t expect him to handle all of their rushing needs.

Final Thoughts:

Carter’s been among my favorite players to watch since I started seriously watching UNC Football, and I’m so glad he’s put in the work to turn from electric college player into serious NFL prospect. He’s an extraordinarily skilled back who seems to maximize just about every situation he’s put into on the field, despite some inevitable limitations due to his size and lack of accompanying game-breaking speed. He’s better suited to a running back tandem at the next level because he can’t do everything a team might need, but he fills a need for just about any NFL team thanks to his versatility and greatness in the open field — get him the ball in space and he’ll make you happy. I doubt he’s going to be a Pro Bowler unless he’s with an offensive scheme and personnel that make it possible, but he’ll be a valuable contributor to whoever drafts him and does a lot of things better than most of his peers. I think he’s worth a mid-late Day 2 pick (end of Round 2 to anywhere in Round 3), and if he’s available on Day 3, he’ll be a steal.