Bears not tipping their hand on Jalen Carter

The standout Georgia defensive tackle looks like a perfect fit as a 3-technique in Matt Eberflus’ defense. But character issues and a reputation for inconsistent effort could make it a risky call if Carter slips to No. 9 in the NFL Draft.

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Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter (88) is rated the top interior defensive lineman in the NFL Draft.

Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter (88) is rated the top interior defensive lineman in the NFL Draft.

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Would the Bears draft Jalen Carter if they could?

Assistant general manager Ian Cunningham predictably did not answer that question at the Bears’ pre-draft news conference Tuesday. In fact, he gave no indication of what the Bears are even thinking about Carter in response to several questions about the standout Georgia defensive tackle. The first high-fives in the Bears’ draft room will go to Cunningham. He did his job.

Be that as it may, Carter remains the most intriguing player in the draft for the Bears heading into Thursday night’s first round. The 6-3, 314-pound (or 323-pound) Carter, 22, is a potential generational talent at a position — 3-technique — that Bears coach Matt Eberflus calls “the engine that makes everything go” in his defense.

But questions about Carter’s character after his arrest on charges of misdemeanor reckless driving and racing in relation to a fatal car accident in January, and his reputation for coasting in games — the antithesis of the H.I.T.S. principle that Eberflus swears by — would add an element of risk for a general manager in particular need of a home run in his initial first-round pick.

“Me, personally, I think just spending more time with him and really just getting to know him, we were able to be there with him,” Cunningham said when asked if he would be comfortable drafting Carter. “Our first conversation was I think at the combine. Second time was at his pro day. I think the more time you spend around him, the more you realize he’s a good player, but you get to know him more as a person.”

Carter’s draft stock became further muddled when he appeared out of shape at Georgia’s pro day on March 15 — two weeks after the Combine. He had gained nine pounds (from 314 to 323), participated only in position drills, and couldn’t even finish those. That a player who had so much to prove would be so unimpressive was another red flag.

Still, the perception of Carter’s draft stock seems to have recovered after the legal matter of his involvement in the fatal accident was settled — one year of probation and a $1,000 fine. Carter is predicted to go either to the Seahawks at No. 5 or the Lions at No. 6 in many mock drafts.

But there’s still the possibility he could fall further and possibly entice the Bears to either draft him or make a move to get him.

“I think Jalen’s a really good player,” Cunningham said when asked if Carter was a H.I.T.S. principle guy. “There’s no denying the talent. You turn on the tape a couple of years ago when [Georgia] won the national championship and they had all those defensive linemen on the field — you couldn’t help but notice [No.] 88 and the knowing that, ‘Oh he’s going to be in next year’s class.’ He’s one of those players you covet just in terms of, you know, being one of the better defensive tackles in the class.”

But is he a H.I.T.S. principle player?

“For me, yeah,” Cunningham said. “I think when you watch him on the field, he’s active, he works hard, he’s physical. When you turn on the tape he shows a number of plays where he shows physicality and toughness. I think he feels some of those [H.I.T.S.] things.”

Draft analysts agree that Carter needs maturity and can’t predict whether the Apopka, Florida, native will develop into an Aaron Donald-like star or a disappointment. But for the Bears at this point of a critical rebuild, the stakes are much higher than normal.

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