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During the past two seasons at the University of Georgia, Jalen Carter established himself as the most disruptive player on college football’s best defense, and in January when the 6-foot-3, 300-plus pound defensive lineman propelled the Bulldogs to a second straight national championship, Carter had positioned himself as a likely top-five pick in N.F.L. draft.
But that changed on March 1 at the N.F.L. scouting combine when Carter was booked on two misdemeanor charges in connection with a car crash that took place hours after the team’s championship parade in January and killed two people, including a Georgia teammate of Carter’s.
For two weeks, Carter’s future in the N.F.L. appeared to be in jeopardy as teams waited to learn whether he would face jail time. On March 16, he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing. He was sentenced to 12 months’ probation and was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, perform 80 hours of community service and complete a state-approved defensive driving course.
Since then, Carter, 22, has not done much to allay the concerns that teams now have about him. He drew criticism when he and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, decided not to take pre-draft visits with teams picking outside the top 10. He struggled in showcasing his skills to N.F.L. scouts and has gone from a surefire top pick to one of the most inscrutable prospects in this year’s draft, which will begin in Kansas City, Mo., on Thursday.
“It’s always a risk-reward balance,” said John Idzik Jr., a former general manager of the Jets. “But when you have impact players at a high impact position, you take a good long look at those guys.”
In the 2022 draft, a record five players were drafted in the first round from Georgia’s defense, including the top pick, defensive end Travon Walker. Some evaluators believed that Carter, who was a sophomore on that team and was not eligible for the draft, was the most talented.
“I started watching the Georgia tape last year,” said Mike Mayock, a former Raiders general manager, who added, referring to Carter’s jersey number: “And I’m thinking: ‘Who the hell is 88? He’s not even on the list.’”
The Raiders fired Mayock in 2022 after a tumultuous three-year tenure during which several of his top picks ended up out of the league because of their missteps off the field.
Mayock selected wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and cornerback Damon Arnette in the first round in 2020, and both were gone by the 2021 season. Arnette was released that year after a social media post showed him holding guns and making death threats. Arnette has not played in the N.F.L. since. Ruggs was released after he was charged with drunken driving in a crash that resulted in the deaths of a woman and her dog.
“I’m not going to get into individual stuff,” Mayock said. “I would just say, organizationally, we took a deep dive on every player we took and ultimately made a decision.”
The decision to draft players like Carter with star talent but red flags including legal and medical problems is typically approached by N.F.L. teams in three ways, Mayock said.
A team may accept that the risk is worth the reward and give a high draft pick extra support. Or the team likes the player only at a lower pick, with less risk and money involved. Or a team decides that a player’s transgressions make it not worth drafting him.
“Everybody’s comfortable with the great player who doesn’t have character issues, but everybody doesn’t package that way,” said Rod Graves, a former general manager of the Arizona Cardinals. “In fact, I would say probably 99 percent of the players fall outside of that box to some degree or another.”
Players with off-the-field concerns typically improve or hurt their draft stock through off-season meetings with teams or at college workouts in front of scouts. So far, Carter has been criticized for both.
On the Georgia campus in March, Carter worked out in front of scouts and coaches from all 32 teams, his first time doing so because he had missed the scouting combine. According to a person who attended the workout and was not authorized to speak publicly, Carter weighed in at 323 pounds, nine pounds over his measurement at the combine, and did not make it through some drills because of exhaustion.
Weeks later, Carter and Rosenhaus decided Carter would not take any pre-draft visits with teams picking outside the top 10, meaning that teams lower in the original order who trade for those higher picks won’t have met with him.
“I think what you’d really like with a kid that’s had off-the-field issues is you’d like them to finish all the way and put his best foot forward,” Mayock said. “I don’t think you knock them down for it. But I do think if you finish and you go to every visit and you put your best foot forward, all it can do is help you.”
John Schneider, general manager of the Seahawks, who hold the No. 5 pick in the draft, said on a podcast earlier this month that he didn’t have an opinion “one way or another” on Carter’s choice not to meet with teams outside the top 10.
Carter seemed to leave a good impression on the Detroit Lions, who hold the No. 6 pick. Detroit’s general manager, Brad Holmes, said in a news conference last week that after Carter’s visit, he had “felt better about him.”
Ultimately, Carter’s talent is likely to keep him from sliding significantly in the draft. In an interview with HBO, Carter seemed to acknowledge that point when he said his involvement in the crash would “matter a little bit.”
There have been players in Carter’s shoes before, and Rosenhaus has represented a few of them, including Warren Sapp, who was projected to be a top pick before reports surfaced that he had failed drug tests ahead of the draft. Sapp fell to the Buccaneers at No. 12, costing him millions of dollars early in his 13-year career, but went on to become one of the best defensive tackles of all time, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
“This kind of stuff keeps you up all night long,” Mayock said.