A few days and several news cycles ago, the Falcons brought back Lorenzo Carter. Signed to a fresh two-year deal after a solid first season in Atlanta, Carter received the kind of contract that suggests he’ll be a prominent piece of the team’s outside linebacker group in 2023.
How prominent, though, and what does the re-signing mean for a Falcons defense that badly needs to improve this coming season? Could Atlanta talk themselves into rolling with a young group of edge rushers rather than using their considerable cap space to add a proven high-end option with Carter back in the fold? Let’s consider Carter and this team’s potential plans.
Depth chart implications
Ideally, Carter will not return as an unquestioned starter. In 2022, he played a career-high 81% of the defensive snaps, or 909 in total, and was a useful player in just about every facet. He wound up being solid against the run, competent in coverage when called upon, and finished second on the team in sacks. For a pressure-starved Falcons defense, though, having Carter as one of your top pass-rushing options would not be ideal. We’ll discuss that in a moment.
The team’s current pecking order at the position group is pretty clear. Arnold Ebiketie will be counted on to take a step forward after an uneven but promising rookie season, and will be one of the Falcons’ top two options if all goes well. DeAngelo Malone, barring a massive leap of his own, will settle in as a reserve, albeit one who should get more run than last year. And Adetokunbo Ogundeji, who mostly had another quiet season and lost his champion in fired outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino, faces an uncertain future with the team but figures to play a diminished role if he’s on the roster.
That leaves Carter as a starter at the moment, but it’s unlikely that an annually terrible Falcons pass rush will go into the season without adding at least a mid-tier edge rusher, given their considerable cap space. That could mean a player like Yannick Ngakoue or Marcus Davenport who would be expected to play a majority of the snaps, or it could be a Bud Dupree or Justin Houston who get a lot of run on passing downs and leave Carter, Malone, and Ogundeji to fight over early down work.
Because the team has four young players under contract already and clearly like most of them, it seems unlikely they’ll make the kind of huge splash signing that will keep Carter off the field. It’s fair to pencil him in as OLB 3, I think, and as a player who will likely wind up playing half or more of the defensive snaps in 2023 and providing solid all-around work in that role.
Carter’s potential impact
What Carter gives you is mighty useful, which is why the Falcons brought him back, even if he was not a standout at any one thing besides big plays on special teams.
In terms of run defense, Carter was one of the team’s more quietly reliable players, as he rarely missed a tackle and was often a factor. Pro Football Focus credits him with 19 run stops, tied for the third-highest total on the team, and he was making his tackles close to the line of scrimmage. A good athlete and sound defender, Carter plays the brand of reliable, physical run defense the team is looking for, which was surely a major factor in his re-signing.
Pass rush is the same story with a little less luster. Per Pro Football Focus, Arnold Ebiketie had 28 pressures, 16 hurries, and 9 quarterback hits on 516 defensive snaps, while Carter had 33 pressures, 20 hurries, and 8 quarterback hits on his 909 snaps. No one is talking about how great Ebiketie was in his rookie season—though I think he showed his promise—and he was nearly as productive as Carter on a bit over half of his snaps. Carter is a capable pass rusher with some brilliant moments, but we now have five NFL seasons that show that 4-5 sacks and 30-35 pressures is his ceiling. He’s young enough to build on that, but for the moment it’s best to assume that’s about what you’ll get from him.
In coverage, Carter was credited with 19 targets by Pro Football Reference, with 14 completions allowed for just 87 yards and a single touchdown, as well as an interception he returned for a score of his own. Again, that’s solid work, albeit in limited opportunities, and Carter’s reliability as a tackler meant he was able to limit the damage done through the air against him.
Finally, there’s special teams. He played just 8% of the snaps there but made an impact by scooping up a punt and returning it for a touchdown, and he has been more of a factor in the past on special teams for the Giants. With a smaller role on defense, he’ll be a key contributor there in 2023.
When you add it all up, Carter is giving you affordable snaps on defense and special teams, and he’s offering consistently solid all-around play on those snaps. That makes him a virtual lock to have a sizeable role on this Falcons defense in 2023, and it makes him a sensible re-signing for a team that needs all the quality defensive play it can possibly get.