The Denver Broncos have been patiently waiting for safety Quinton Carter to get healthy. The former starter—and rising star—for the Broncos has missed most of the last two years due to a serious knee injury that required microfracture surgery.
The last time Carter played for the Broncos there were starters like quarterback Tim Tebow and strong safety Brian Dawkins on the roster.
The roster is shaped much differently with today’s Broncos.
Even with the different look, Carter is still finding his way onto the field with the first team. When the defense has been practicing in a nickel package at minicamp, Carter has been on the field as a strong safety.
One of Denver’s biggest free-agent additions this offseason was the signing of strong safety T.J. Ward. Had Carter been healthy and stayed on the trajectory he showed in 2011, there’s a chance the Broncos would never have had to make a move for Ward.
Carter was a stud in college, and he immediately showed incredible upside as a rookie with the Broncos. Now, after missing almost two years, the Broncos are hoping Carter can pick up where he left off.
It’s been so long since Carter has been on the field that it’s worth looking back on the player he was coming out of Oklahoma. He was a highly rated safety in the 2011 draft class by most draft experts, and many felt he would be picked somewhere around the third round.
Carter started his college career in 2006, but he had a redshirt season in 2007. After missing the early part of the 2008 season due to surgery on a slight torn knee ligament, Carter just kept getting better for the Sooners each year.
He has always been known as a big-hitter. Carter can intimidate opponents who dare run routes across the middle. He rarely takes false steps and gets to the point of the play quickly.
Carter was an excellent open-field tackler in college, and as a free safety he could play close to the line of scrimmage like an extra linebacker. He was fearless on the field, and Carter had no problem supporting the run.
As a former high school quarterback, Carter knows where most plays are going as they unfold in front of him. These diagnostic skills help him make (or break up) plays.
His aggression can be used against him at times. Carter will look to make the big hit, and sometimes he’ll bite hard on double moves, pump fakes or play-action fakes. He’s got good straight-line speed, but Carter lacks elite recovery speed.
It was clear that Carter’s skill set was going to make him a solid pro for years. Teams were concerned about the degenerative cartilage condition in his knee, and that’s why Carter fell in the draft.
In the 2011 NFL draft, the Broncos selected Carter in the fourth round. The pick was acquired in the trade that sent the second-round pick that became quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the San Francisco 49ers. By trading away the 36th-overall pick, the Broncos acquired a 2011 second-round pick (Rahim Moore, 45th overall), a 2011 fourth-round pick (Quinton Carter, 108th overall), and a 2011 fifth-round pick (traded to Green Bay Packers, D.J. Williams, 141st overall).
Carter was an impact player for the Broncos before his injury.
As a rookie, Carter won the starting free-safety job of 2011 second-round pick Rahim Moore. Carter lined up next to strong safety Brian Dawkins to give the Broncos an incredibly intimidating last line of defense.
When Dawkins was injured on and off, Carter could transition easily to play strong safety in his spot. He was flying around the field on most every game, and Carter finished his rookie season with 44 tackles, 11 assists and one sack. Carter showed up in a big way as the Broncos made their Tebow/miracle run in the 2011 playoffs.
Carter picked off Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks in the postseason. The sky looked like the limit for the talented young safety.
During the team’s 2012 training camp, bad weather forced them into a rented sports bubble around the corner from team headquarters at Dove Valley. That move proved to be disastrous for Carter. He suffered a knee and hamstring injury while trying to avoid running into a soccer goal in the bubble.
Within the week, Carter underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. He played in a couple of games early in 2012, but the team placed him on season-ending Injured Reserve in late September.
Carter was still recovering last offseason, often seen around Dove Valley lightly jogging around the field while his teammates practiced. The team felt that he needed more time to recover, so they placed him on Injured Reserve again.
Microfracture injuries are among the most severe knee injuries a player can sustain. However, the injury isn’t as devastating as it used to be years ago in the NFL. Carter’s injury has been difficult to overcome, but it was never considered career-threatening.
Dr. Jene Bramel from Footballguys.com offers some insight into Carter’s injury.
“Microfracture has a higher success rate than a decade ago, but there's still a risk that Carter will have some residual cartilage loss in his knee. It's a great sign that he's cutting at speed in minicamp. If he continues to be able to practice on consecutive days without swelling though training camp, it will be an even better indication of a good recovery.”
Carter is looking good on the practice field at minicamp. He’s moving well and flying to the football. Carter is making moves without thinking about the knee injury that has kept him out of action for almost two years. When asked about his health, Carter says “I’m feeling good. No difficulties.”
Before minicamp wrapped up, the Broncos gave us a chance to hear from Carter. He’s always been a fascinating interview as Carter is a humble player with high football intelligence.
He had to keep a positive outlook during his recovery, and Carter described that task as the toughest part of his rehabilitation.
“Just staying optimistic, keeping my mind on that big goal of returning and making a difference on the team through all the ups and downs. By far that’s the most difficult point but I’m here now just taking it a day at a time, getting better each day.”
Hall of Fame cornerback/safety Rod Woodson is working as a coaching intern for the Broncos this offseason. Carter picked Woodson’s brain about this injury because years ago Woodson went through the same surgery.
“He came up to me and was just saying, ‘Don’t get discouraged. You’ll get back to exactly where you want to be.’ He said he played 14 years after his surgery so that was really helpful.”
His upside is so great, the Broncos kept him around the last two years with no return on the field. That support gave Carter strength, and he greatly appreciates it.
“It means the world, especially in this business. They pretty much believed in me and that gave me the confidence to just take my time and get healthy. Now I’m ready to make a difference.”
Carter feels the best is yet to come. “I would say my rookie season was OK. It wasn’t the best that I could have done. More study and more film work, slowing the game down so I could play faster. I’m just ready to make plays and get in and fit in where I can.”
Carter could play a larger role in 2014 than some think. The team has been waiting for a comeback, and this year their patience could pay off. Even with strong safety T.J. Ward and free safety Rahim Moore on the depth chart, Carter has the athletic ability, intelligence and nose for the ball to push for a starting job.
If Ward plays middle linebacker for the Broncos in the nickel package, then Carter would be a fine replacement for the strong safety in the defensive backfield. The Broncos were in their nickel defense on over 60 percent of the defensive snaps in 2013. That number could be similar (or greater) for the Broncos this year as their defense tries to slow down opponents who have to go pass-happy in order to keep up with Denver’s high-powered offense.
A nickel-package player is essentially a starter in today’s NFL. Carter could be on the field early and often for the Broncos in 2014.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.