Clemson star linebacker Barrett Carter announced Thursday on social media that he will be returning to school for his senior season. The junior says he has “unfinished business to attend to” following the Tigers’ 8-4 season.
In a vacuum, Carter’s decision is not shocking. While he absolutely could have declared this year, he was widely viewed as a Day 2 player with good upside. If he can build on a solid 2023 campaign in which he tallied 59 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, and three sacks, he has a good chance to be a first-round prospect in 2025.
However, this strikes a major blow to a position group that was already struggling to wow scouts and draft analysts. Carter was the top linebacker on many analysts’ boards, mine included, heading into the season. This linebacker class has largely failed to develop. Very few prospects have burst onto the scene, with Texas A&M’s Edgerrin Cooper likely being the best candidate for that designation.
PFF currently has Cooper as its top off-ball linebacker, creeping just inside the top 50, with Carter ranking second. Tankathon had Carter second as well, trailing his Clemson teammate Jeremiah Trotter Jr., whom they rank 46th. NFL Mock Draft Database does not have a linebacker in the top 50 of its consensus big board having already removed Carter from its rankings, with Trotter leading the way at No. 56.
This could be a sign of a troubling trend for off-ball linebackers. After seeing plenty of backers come off the board in the first round from 2020 to 2022, Jack Campbell turned out to be an anomaly in 2023. The former Iowa standout was the only off-ball linebacker selected in the first two rounds. Drew Sanders out of Arkansas went 68th overall to be the second player taken at the position.
There is a long way to go until draft day, which definitely keeps the door open for someone to rise up the board or a surprise declaration to shake things up. Perfect example of the latter, Jamin Davis came from off-the-radar to wind up being a first-round pick in 2021. He was expected to return to school for another year, but rode the momentum of Kentucky’s breakout season and came out early. At this stage though, it is hard to imagine we see an off-ball linebacker selected on Day 1, with the player who likely had the best chance of working his way into the conversation through pre-draft testing no longer in consideration.
Make no mistake, the league still values the linebacker position. Fred Warner, Roquan Smith, Lavonte David and C.J. Mosley are game-changing players operating as the backbone and leader of their respective defenses. Each is well compensated as well. We are seeing young linebackers like Davis, Campbell, Quay Walker and Patrick Queen grow in their respective roles as well.
This may well just be a lull in elite linebacker talent coming out of the collegiate ranks and the NFL reacting in kind. Off-ball linebacker typically is not a position the league tends to overdraft or reach for when the talent isn’t there. Perhaps Carter’s return to school is just setting the stage for a major resurgence when players like Penn State’s Abdul Carter and Georgia’s Jalon Walker are both eligible.