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Film review: Jermaine Carter Jr. brings high football IQ to Chiefs’ linebackers

The former Panther brings experience that can complement the two young starters at his position.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to be excited for the future of Kansas City Chiefs’ linebackers Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton — but two players don’t handle every responsibility for the position. In the past, players like Ben Niemann and Reggie Ragland have provided a lower-volume impact behind the two primary players, and it appears the Chiefs have found the next man in line.

On Friday, Kansas City signed former Carolina Panthers linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. to an inexpensive, one-year contract. The 27-year-old started all 17 games for the Panthers last season and played the third-most snaps of any defensive player in total.

The basics

Before being selected in the fifth round by the Panthers in the 2018 NFL Draft, Carter was a prospect from Maryland that measured in at roughly 6 feet and 222 pounds at his Pro Day — making him undersized for the traditional linebacker.

Since entering the NFL, he has yet to miss a game — playing in all 65 possible contests. Initially, he was primarily a piece in the special-teams phase of the game; by the second half of the 2020 season, he earned a bigger defensive role — turning it into a career season in 2021 with 88 combined tackles, three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, one pass defended and one forced fumble.

How he has been utilized

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Carter was one of the Panthers’ primary off-ball linebackers in 2021, playing as the MIKE linebacker in base and nickel formations. He would be trusted on passing downs situationally — but he was usually relied on for early, running downs rather than lighter-personnel packages like the dime.

That said, Carter was competent whether he was playing in the base or occasionally trusted as the lone linebacker on the field. Carter’s comprehension of the offensive play came through in his play, showing off a generally high football IQ.

Especially against the run, Carter quickly reacts to the action and is not easily fooled by misdirection. From the jump of a run play, he usually looks to be in a proper position. It also shows up in how quickly he gets to his coverage responsibility in zone.

With the bump that his high-football IQ gives him at the start of a play, Carter leans on dipping under and dodging blocks with finesse rather than power. He has the quick feet to attack one side of the blocker’s path, then quickly redirect and jump to the other side, leaving the blocker gasping for air.

However, he relies on that block-avoiding technique because he has a lower rate of success shedding blocks after the initial engagement. Especially against offensive linemen, he doesn’t have the raw strength to throw players off and prevent blocks from disrupting his path in pursuit of a ballcarrier.

When a linebacker relies on that finesse style too much, it can lead to gashes in the run game if not used at the correct times. Here, Carter gets a good jump on the run; instead of staying ahead of the ball carrier and filling the gap he is assigned to, Carter tries to slip the offensive tackle by jumping back into the previous gap.

He doesn’t make the tackle, but it’s because he was held — which is a positive play for the defense. However, a player who trusts his play strength could have attacked his assigned gap and severely reduced the chance of allowing a big run.

How he fits with the Chiefs

Behind Bolton and Gay, Carter currently projects to be the third linebacker to get snaps. In base formations, when all three are on the field, it would be wise to keep him in an off-ball situation rather than up on the line of scrimmage. It’s possible that he may play the MIKE for those packages, allowing Bolton and Gay’s play-making ability to be used from the outside positions.

He has the capabilities to fill the MIKE role but may not offer more than competence. He has the fundamentals down, but finishing a play and making significant impacts is something that he constantly lacks.

In all three seasons of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s tenure in Kansas City, the one linebacker in dime packages has been a specialized role different from the primary starters. Niemann has been that player, which may indicate that they value the ability to call a defense with MIKE experience rather than pure ability.

Carter’s career has shown that he fits similar criteria.

He has the movement skills to hold up in open space, but he just doesn’t have the cleanest reps as a coverage player. He seems to read quarterbacks’ eyes well, and it will lead him to the play, but it won’t always end with the most instinctual play on the ball.

The bottom line

Carter is a safe bet to make the 53-man roster in 2022, serving as one of the team’s immediate depth linebackers, a special-teams piece and possibly earning a niche starting role.

The ceiling of the impact he can make for the Chiefs is low, but he can raise the floor of the position. Yes, he does bring a similar playstyle as the departing Niemann — but it is possible Carter is better in play recognition and overall play-making against the run.

For the role Carter should be asked to play, he can be an asset that aids the young stars of his position group.

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