Steelers' Next Great Backer?

Chris Carter is learning the Steelers' tradition-rich outside linebacker position from an outsider first -- and then he's all Pittsburgh's.

Picture this: a college defensive end that is a little too small to play the position at the pro level. He's gobbled up by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who promptly stand him up to play outside linebacker. He learns from the team's veterans, pays his dues on special teams, before stepping into a starting role to become Pittsburgh's next great linebacker.

It happened with Joey Porter, with James Harrison, and with LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers now hope that the same storyline plays out with fifth-round draft pick Chris Carter.

Carter, who stands 6'1" and weighs 248 lbs., has a head start over some of the team's past conversion projects, having played a bit of linebacker during his college career at Fresno State.

"I [played linebacker] my sophomore year, but I had to go back to defensive end because another defensive end got injured," said Carter. "That was a change that I had to do for the team, but I'm definitely going to go back to linebacker and I actually enjoy the position."

No matter where he lined up at Fresno State, Carter found success in rushing the passer, amassing 11 sacks in his senior season, good for ninth in the country.

There's little question that Carter has the talent to succeed at the pro level, but he was a fifth-round pick for a reason. He's a "tweener" that is a hard fit for most NFL defenses. Though he is a strong fit for the Steelers, who have successfully molded such players into stud linebackers, he's a project that will need time to make the transition.

"[The transition is] usually a couple of years," explained linebackers coach Keith Butler. "The biggest thing for these guys is … when they play at defensive end, [they] usually have to line up over an offensive tackle, if there's not a tight end or side. They don't have to make formation adjustments. This will be the biggest obstacle that will have to be overcome in terms of recognizing formations and exactly where we want to line up. I spend 80% of my time talking about alignment with all the linebackers because if you get a line right, it makes your job a lot easier. We'll have the same thing with him. Learning where to line up and the different pass coverage techniques we'll ask him to use."

Of course, Pittsburgh excels at converting players like Carter, having done so successfully since the early 90s. It's that reason that Carter believes that he and the Steelers are a match made in heaven.

"I feel like I couldn't be in a better situation as far as coaches and defensive coordinators to veterans for me to learn from," said Carter. "I'm just going to do my best to capitalize on it."

Carter was a big fan of some of the veterans he'll be learning from, especially Harrison, saying in his post-selection conference call that it would be an honor to be in the same locker room as 2008's Defensive Player of the Year.

"[Harrison and LB LaMarr Woodley] are just both very relentless guys and they use whatever size they have to get to the QB," said Carter of his two new teammates. "They use their relentlessness to get there and that's how they make a lot of plays. They're hard workers."

The fifth-round pick does believe he shares a common trait with Pittsburgh's outside tandem: explosiveness off the edge.

"I feel like I'm an explosive player," Carter said. "Especially coming off the edge, my speed definitely works to my benefit. And I feel that with some much-needed help from those guys, I can definitely try to be a better player and become more explosive and definitely make a lot more plays."

Butler noted his newest 'backer's speed, but did say the former-Bulldog needs to add an element of strength to his game to keep opposing blockers off balance.

"I think he's going to have to develop a counter because if you're only a one-trick pony in this league as a pass rusher, then offenses usually figure out how to shut you down," the linebackers coach said. "They are smart enough over there to sit there and look at film and say this guy's only a speed rusher, so they are going to get off the ball and get deep and catch him as he comes. But if you can counter that with a good bull rush then you're going to take that offensive tackle back to the quarterback."

While the plan for Carter might be delayed at the start by an increasingly messy NFL labor situation, the young draft pick is staying in shape, working out with his brother David, a defensive tackle who was drafted in the sixth round by "Pittsburgh West" over in Arizona. He's also resumed training at the Athlete Performance Institute under Willie McGinest, a Super-Bowl winning linebacker for the New England Patriots who also made the transition from college defensive end to a linebacker in the pros.

Carter will learn all he can from McGinest until the labor situation is resolved. Once that happens, he'll resume his education under a Hall-of-Fame defensive coordinator in Dick LeBeau, a coordinator-in-waiting in Keith Butler, and a slew of veteran linebackers who came into the league the same way he did.

Pittsburgh will have to hope that two years from now, or even four years from now, Carter will follow in the footsteps of those who came before him and become the next great Steelers linebacker.

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