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Gut Checks is a series of one-player articles designed to help fantasy owners understand what to notice--good or bad--when watching specific players. The players in these articles are fantasy prospects--regardless of Average Draft position--that Matt Waldman believes are worth monitoring this year.
Duron Carter's football career is on trial and the prosecution has a great case. The evidence against Cris Carter's son is damning:
- Four years, four colleges, nine games total, and no more than a season at each institution.
- A failed tryout with his dad's team in 2013.
- Coaches and teammates testifying that Carter lacked a work ethic.
- The Colts drafted Carter's former high school teammate Phillip Dorsett after signing Carter in February.
The star witness for the prosecution has to be former Coffeyville Community College quarterback Cayden Cochran, who according to USA Today's Mike Garafolo tweeted the following statement about Carter in February 2013: "The team that drafts Duron Carter will get the most lazy, whiny & non-work ethic player the nfl has ever seen. I played w/him. Horrible person & will be a complete cancer to any team on the board."
The fact that Carter's character witnesses are his daddy, Chad Johnson and a CFL GM is like clinging to a whale carcass for one's life in shark-infested waters.
There is hope though. The Colts signed Carter this year and the team sees him as a potential NFL starter. Dorsett and Carter are two different styles of receiver and T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson aren't long-term options for the team. In Carter's defense, poor academic performance does not correlate to poor NFL performance. And in a most shocking turn of events, Carter defender Chad Johnson has abandoned the Chad Ochocinco shtick and the former NFL receiver is behaving like a man trying to live a future more meaningful and well-intentioned than his recent past.
I watched Carter's CFL tape earlier this year. It's difficult to have confidence in him as a long-term prospect, because Carter's utter lack of consistency from week-to-week will raise caution flags for a guy like me.
In one game, Carter appears careless and lackadaisical with his receiving technique. He plays almost every target with an underhand-cradle technique, failing to win the ball because he doesn't attack the target with textbook form.
Carter drops passes that he has no business letting through his mitts in the same contest and his routes are sloppy in every way. When he does get open and makes a reception, Carter holds the ball from his body like he pulled it from a burning building and it's still engulfed in flames.
The next week Carter still has some of these issues, but he there's more focus and refined effort. His three-step releases against the corner are sharp and he sets up separation with his hands. When he breaks his routes there is bend in his hips and he's setting up defenders with stems that tell compelling stories to turn defenders down the wrong path. When the ball arrives, Carter is doing exactly what the average fan would expect the son of Cris Carter to do: High-pointing targets, diving scoops inches from the turf, and displaying the strength and concentration to catch the ball around the arm of a defender plastered to him.
His play is good enough that you're compelled to point to the screen and hope that somehow, he can hear you shouting at him, "That's how you do it...keep doing that, and you've got a chance to be really good!"
The fact that these extremes of performance come a week apart from the other raises questions about Carter. Was he hurt the week prior? Was there an off-field issue that robbed Carter of his focus? Or does Carter still have the mindset that he can coast on his physical skills and turn on his mental preparation for the game like flipping a switch?
If the culprit is Carter's attitude towards football, then the dropped passes, fumbles, and poor positioning on routes from both games indicate that Carter's switch doesn't always turnover on command. This behavior always comes into greater relief as a player progresses to a higher level of competition. Carter has moments where he looks like the No.1 NFL receiver that Chad Johnson says the Colts' new option is, but consistency matters in professional football.
The game at this level is far more about mental preparation on the practice field, in the film room, and in the gym, because only a handful of athletes at this stratosphere of the game can lean on their ability to physically dominate an opponent without regard to technical skill or conceptual mastery of the game plan. This is something that most pro prospects learn during their tenure at a major college program, but Carter never stuck around long enough for this lesson to sink in.
This week's Gut Checks will illustrate Carter's skills that could make him a productive, big-play possession threat, but remember one thing: As recently as these markedly different games in consecutive weeks at the end of last season that I described above, Carter's game is an unstable commodity. He's the classic boom-bust, high upside player, which makes him all the more irresistible to profile.
Passive vs. Active Catch Technique
Carter knows the proper way to catch a football, but he's not disciplined with his technique. The corner route below should have been a 34-yard completion. One could nitpick the arc of Montreal quarterback Jonathan Crompton's throw, but Carter is open and he fails to establish a winning position to make the catch despite having the time and separation to do so.
Carter gets open on this play with a decent stem--the portion of the route before the break--that bends inside and forces the defender to turn and run downfield. When Carter breaks outside, the defensive back stumbles as he reacts to the receiver's change of direction. The result is two yards of separation and Carter is already looking for the ball.
As Carter continues tracking the ball out of his break, he still has a healthy amount of separation on his opponent. The defender as actually loses his shoe on the play and it gives Carter an advantage at the catch point. If he makes the reception, the Carter also earns an edge in the open field. The photo below, shows Carter and his opponent's position as the receiver tracks the ball directly overhead.
Carter has done a sound job of working under the pass. He's in position to leap for the target, extend his arms over his head, and catch the pass with palms outward and fingertips skyward as both hands form a web at the oncoming point of the ball. These steps what Carter should do, but he doesn't.
The reason is a lack of mental discipline born from focused practice with high standards. The techniques described above are harder to perform than Carter waiting on the pass to arrive and cradle it. What Carter hasn't gotten into his head yet is that the effort to use strong technique to the smallest detail will insure that he makes first contact with the pass and has more opportunities to control the ball.
Bill Walsh use to critique Joe Montana's deep accuracy if the ball didn't arrive exactly a foot beyond the receiver's body. He urged perfection. At first, his coaches--veteran football men--raised an eyebrow at Walsh's standards, but they learned how important the smallest details are for a team striving to be the best. Watch NFL Network's Bill Walsh: A Football Life for more on Walsh's standards.
Carter doesn't possess this high of a standard for himself and he doesn't make the optimal effort to do his job. He leaps for the target, but he choses a more passive technique of cradling the oncoming pass. His palms face his body and his arms never extend from his frame. If Carter extends his arms to the height of the red circle above his head in the photo below and he positions his palms outward, he's in a better position to control the ball and eliminate any chance of the defender making a play on the ball.
This may seem like nitpicking to many. Receivers make catches like this all the time and in tighter coverage. Even successful pro receivers don't execute technique pitch-perfect every time.
However, let's take a different look at Bill Walsh's high standards and examine why the drive for perfection is so important at the highest levels of a profession. The difference between a good college player and a top professional can be illustrated with a look at how rare it is to play football at the highest level. Based on data from the NCAA and NFL, only the top 6.5 percent of all high school players compete in college football (the 93.5th percentile) and only the top 1.6 percent of all college players enter the NFL (the 98.4th percentile). Only 0.94 percent of all college players make the NFL AND earn a second contract (the 99.06th percentile).
For the sake of entertainment--and this is not scientific--let's apply those percentiles to success rate of executing plays on a per snap basis using 1,000 plays. The typical high school player would, in theory, commit 65 egregious errors. A college star with NFL potential would commit 16 egregious errors. How about that NFL vet good enough to earn a second contract? 9 egregious errors.
Although this example isn't a true depiction errors per play, the overall point is consistent with high-performing individuals, processes, and teams. The difference in quality between college and pro performers may seem small when examining a factor like cumulative errors, but the total errors for the college star is nearly twice as many as the NFL vet.
It's the backdrop for what Carter has already discovered when working with Andrew Luck in practice:
“He’s great,” Carter said to ESPN staff writer Mike Wells in April. “I’ve never been around a quarterback like him. He’s just so in-depth with detail. If we miss a route, we’ve got to run it again. Everything is precise and to the point. That’s what you need.”
Apply this focus on detail to catching a football and one can see how Carter's inconsistent execution of a simple technique leads to more errors like this play in question. As the ball arrives, Carter uses his palms to cradle the ball to his chest and the ball ricochets off his palms and his chest, through his arms, and to the turf.
As mentioned in the Gut Checks on Cody Latimer, the pads of the fingertips act like multiple shock absorbers to prevent the ball from rebounding too forcefully from one broader surface like the palm of the hand or a player's chest. The fingertips act like a brake on the rotation of the ball better than two larger flat surfaces clapping against the other without the same precision.
When he can seal the game on this fade route with 3:04 left, Carter yet again fails to attack the ball. His hands are in position to work over the shoulders of the defender and high-point the target but Carter opts to wait on the ball and cradle it. He'd be better off leaping skyward, turning his back to the defender, high-pointing the ball, and securing the target with great position on his opponent.
Instead of a catch with excellent position to protect and secure the ball, Carter tries another over-the-shoulder cradle, and the ball rebounds off his hands into an area where the defender can make a play on the ball and limit Carter's second-chance opportunity. Whether Carter was confused about the method he should use with his hands or reacted to the target with the less efficient body position, the root issue is preparation. A receiver that prepares with great intent and focuses on details knows how to react efficiently to a target like this one.
Even Carter's better game reveals that cradling the ball is a consistent habit that he needs to break. The play below is a successful catch and Carter traps the ball to his chest when he could have attacked the ball with his arms out, fingers up, and palms facing the ball.
Carter's bad habit can be broken, because he displays moments of better hands technique in this game. Here's the tail-end of a 32-yard catch where he turns to the ball and extends his arms just enough to catch the ball at head level with his hands in good position.
Even with the defender's arm between the ball and the receiver's chest, Carter's good technique affords him more control to secure the ball as the defender makes contact. This play alone illustrates that Carter is capable of proper technique, but he doesn't consistently make the best choices. The same can be said of numerous pro players that flame out or never fully realize their vast potential after they make an initial splash.
Carter doesn't display the confidence in his hands that comes with strong preparation and focus. Here's another play where Carter uses the correct technique to attack the target, but he double clutches the ball and still has to trap it to his frame. The proper technique affords Carter this second-chance opportunity, but it's clear that his technique of first preference is the underhanded cradle.
Carter's discomfort with active catch technique comes to roost later in the game. He gets open over the middle and he once again double-catches the ball. This time, there's a defender in the area to knock the target loose.
Too fast to see this double catch on video? Here are the still shots that illustrate Carter's problem. He fails to secure the ball with both hands, which forces him to double-clutch, pull the ball to his side to secure the double-clutch, and provide the defender an opening to knock the ball loose.
Here's the initial contact...
The double-clutch ...
The second attempt to secure the ball...
Contact from the defender...
The potential for Carter to develop into a viable NFL receiver is there. Watch the rest of the highlights from this game or his best work in Montreal from 2013-2014 and Carter displays the grace, strength, and flashes of hand-eye coordination that his father honed into a Hall of Fame career.
One thing that is notable from the tape is the high volume of bucket-style catches where he cradles the ball when he could have attacked it. When he does attack the ball properly, he's capable of plays we see on Sundays.
Indianapolis gives Carter the best opportunity he'll ever have in his budding professional career. There are enough weapons around Andrew Luck that Carter does not have to be the man right away, but he'll have to perform with greater consistency than what he has shown in the CFL to make the Colts' roster. If Carter truly acts on his admission that Indianapolis is his last chance and figures out that he truly wants to be an NFL football player and it's not some deep-rooted, false expectation that he gave himself, the young receiver often looks like a spitting image of his dad on the field.
The FAntasy 4-1-1
In modern terms, Cris Carter was a similar player to Hakeem Nicks when Nicks was at the top of his game. Nicks had a little more top-end speed, Carter had more gravity-defying body control. Nicks, a shadow of what he was during his prime years in New York, caught 38 balls for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns.
On his heels was rookie Donte Moncrief with 32 grabs, 444 yards, and 3 scores. Moncrief is penciled in as the No.3 option in this offense--a unit that likes to use two tight ends in its base offense. Moncrief, Nicks, and also-departed Reggie Wayne combined for 134 catches, 1628 yards, and 9 touchdowns last year. The only fantasy starter at wide receiver for the Colts was T.Y. Hilton (No.10 at position).
Andre Johnson caught 85-936-3 for a Houston team without consistent quarterback play last year. Projecting this total as Johnson's baseline for 2015 and that 134-1628-9 as the total production available for Johnson-Moncrief-Carter-Dorsett is probably a good idea because it's less likely that Luck, the No.1 fantasy quarterback in 2014, will build significantly (if at all) on his league-leading yardage totals or his 40 passing touchdowns.
If Johnson approached 1000 yards in Houston, it's reasonable to project Johnson earning 1000 yards this year, which leaves roughly 600 yards for the trio of Moncrief-Carter-Dorsett. Hilton and Dorsett bring similar attributes to the team, which means Dorsett's impact in 2015 will be minimal barring injury. Carter will have to out-play Moncrief to earn opportunities in three-receiver sets or a Coby Fleener injury forces more four-receiver sets.
The idea of Moncrief earning 400-600 yards in 2015 will be a disappointing, but realistic projection for dynasty owners of the second-year option. It doesn't leave Carter much room for production, either. Unless there are at least two injuries at the top of the combined WR and TE corps, the most realistic short-term hope for Carter is for the receiver to make the final roster.
Hilton's contract expires at the end of the season. Johnson has a three-year deal that, according to Colts Authority, in years 2016-2017 are structured more like two one-year deals with no dead cap money in the deal's final year. Moncrief and Carter should be competing for Johnson's role opposite Dorsett by no later than the end of 2016.
Moncrief entered the league with subpar route skills. Carter sets up breaks better, but neither have shown great skill with sudden stops that earn receivers separation on routes breaking back to the quarterback. Carter is a bit further along with the mechanics of routes and breaks. Carter also has more skill at adjusting to difficult targets, but Moncrief is a more physical player at the position.
It's a battle worth monitoring this year if you're monitoring the future development of the Colts depth chart, but neither player deserves consideration before the 10th round of a fantasy draft in 2015. That said, Moncrief has a 9.04 ADP as of May. In contrast, Latimer, Allen Robinson, and Eric Decker have lower ADPs. Madness for a receiver that isn't in an offense where the No.3 WR isn't a top-50 fantasy producer.
It's even nuttier because Carter has the potential to leap Moncrief on the depth chart this summer and I wouldn't recommend either player this early if the rest of the corps is healthy. Even if Carter puts it all together this summer, I'm skeptical that he can out-perform the twilight version of Johnson. Carter is an intriguing player to monitor, but unlike Latimer in Denver, there's not much opportunity for fantasy production this year.