NFL draft season never ends.
As soon as Mr. Irrelevant’s name is called — Brock Purdy in the case of the 2022 NFL Draft, who keeps making history for the San Francisco 49ers — the next draft season begins. Evaluators both in the media, and in the NFL, start doing work on the next draft class, during the summer scouting season.
Last summer, one of the pass rushers that caught the eyes of many evaluators was Andre Carter II. Carter was coming off a 14.5-sack season, and his length, athleticism, and pass-rushing tool kit had many wondering if he could play himself into the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
What made Carter even more intriguing?
He plays at Army.
The last time an Army football player was drafted was back in 2008, when the Detroit Lions picked defensive back Caleb Campbell in the seventh round, pick 218 overall. You have to go back to 1997 to find the next most-recent Army NFL draft pick, and that was quarterback Ronnie McAda in the seventh round. McAda was the 240th pick that year.
All told, only six Army football players have ever been drafted in the NFL draft. Both McAda and Campbell were the earliest selections in terms of rounds, but back in 1960 running back Bob Anderson came off the board in the ninth round, at pick 108 overall to the New York Giants. Making Anderson the earliest overall selection in Army football history.
Carter, however, looks like he can change that. Last summer when he was drawing everyone’s attention, it was plays like this sack against Georgia State where he beats the right guard with a quick swim move before getting to the quarterback:
Or this sack against Western Kentucky, where he uses his 6’ 7” frame to long-arm the left tackle, before cutting inside for the sack:
That made Carter a darling of the NFL draft community.
All told, Carter finished the 2021 season with 14.5 sacks, second in FBS. Only Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. had more, as the Alabama pass rusher finished with 17.5 on the year. Carter was named to the AP All-American team, the first Black Knight to make that list in over 30 years.
While Carter’s production was down this past season, he still finished with 3.5 sacks this season, along with 33 charted pressures, according to Sports Info Solutions. Plays like this sack against Troy, where he shows incredible quickness in beating the right tackle, illustrate the traits he offers to an NFL team:
While Carter began the year inside the first round in many mock drafts, that stock has slid a bit, but you can still see his name inside the second round of most mock drafts. Again, if that were to hold true it would make him the highest NFL draft pick in Army football history. Here is a chart from NFLMockDraftDatabase.com illustrating his place in mock drafts dating back to September:
In addition, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. currently has Carter graded as his second outside linebacker — behind only Anderson — and his 22nd-ranked player overall. Said the longtime draft analyst of Carter: “His wingspan is incredible. His length is his strength. He’s lean. He’s smart. When you watch his tape, it’s like you’re rewinding and watching the same play over and over because he’s that consistent. Because of that, I think he will be able to step into any defensive scheme and make an impact.”
Carter will get another chance to show scouts what he can do in a few weeks, when he heads to Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl, the annual kickoff for NFL draft season:
However, there is a chance that none of this comes together. That Carter is not the highest NFL draft pick in Army history, and that his dreams of playing the NFL do not materialize.
Because of Congress.
This past week the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and with the bill having already passed the House of Representatives, the bill is set to be signed into law by President Joseph R. Biden.
Tucked into the bill is Section 553, titled “Agreement by a Cadet or Midshipman to Play Professional Sport Constitutes a Breach of Service Obligation.” This section states that any cadet or midshipman cannot obtain employment, including as a professional athlete, until they have completed their commissioned service obligation.
When students enroll at one of the U.S. service academies, they pledge to serve for a period of time in their respective branch. According to the Army, fulfillment of the U.S. Military Academy’s service obligation is five years of active duty, and three years in the individual ready service. Under Army policy, after two years of service, a graduate can apply for an alternative service option.
In recent years, athletes could apply for a waiver of their service obligation, or defer that obligation for a few years. During his time in office, President Barack Obama implemented a policy that allowed some athletes to defer their military service, and play professional sports after graduation. That opened the door for Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds to be drafted in the sixth round of the 2016 draft.
But in 2017, new Defense Secretary James Mattis rescinded that policy, stating that service academies “exist to develop future officers,” and that graduates would fulfill their obligations and expectations accordingly.
In 2019, however, President Donald J. Trump pushed for that policy to be changed. That led to Mattis’ successor, Mark Esper, to implement a new policy, allowing for athletes to apply for a waiver to delay their active-duty service, that could be granted by the defense secretary.
Now, that policy is in jeopardy, given the bill that is headed to President Biden’s desk.
Wisconsin congressman Mike Gallagher introduced the amendment implementing the change. Rep. Gallagher serves on the House Armed Services Committee, and prior to joining Congress, he served for seven years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including two deployments to Iraq. During debate in committee, Gallagher framed his amendment this way:
When a midshipman or a cadet opts to put off their service obligation to pursue a career as a professional athlete, in effect, it means they removed an opportunity from an individual who is committed to carrying out their service obligation immediately following graduation.
My amendment would prohibit that. It would require them to fulfill their obligation prior to going pro for whatever sport. We’re talking about average acceptance rates of about 10% at these service academies. So that means there are thousands of patriotic Americans who do not have the opportunity to attend a military service academy.
The sentiment behind the amendment is understandable, but its implementation poses problems for athletes like Carter. While Carter enrolled at the USMA under the previous policy put in place by then-defense secretary Mattis, he made the decision to “affirm” his commitment to Army prior to his junior year, under the revised policy. Cadets at the USMA face the decision of whether or not to “affirm” their commitment to the school after two years, an agreement to both serve after graduation, and to pay back any tuition costs if they do not graduate.
He could have transferred, knowing he would have to pay back the tuition but avoiding a potential conflict following graduation. However, Carter chose to stay, at a time when the waiver process was in place.
News of this language in the NDAA broke the week of the annual Army-Navy game. Reached for comment by ESPN, Army coach Jeff Monken indicated he did not find out about the potential change until after the game. Monken told ESPN that he was “100 percent against” the change, and indicated that it was not “fair” to Carter:
It’s just kind of pulling the rug out from under him. It’s not fair. It’s not fair to him. He was loyal to this team and institution. He could have left and he didn’t. He still wants to serve. It’s not that he doesn’t want to serve. He wants to pursue the NFL and play, and then serve.
Ryan McCarthy, the former secretary of the Army, was part of the the group who initiated the policy change in 2019. He also spoke with ESPN about the change:
You can argue on the merits of philosophy. It’s the sort of thing where we have three-plus years of precedent. There’s five former Army players who have had service deferred. Four made it in the NFL and one, who was cut (First Lt. Connor Slomka), who is today in the 75th Ranger regiment. At present, the policy is working.
Clearly these young men entered this season with the presumption they’d be afforded the opportunity, if able, to vie for the NFL. Because of this change, I think it’s only appropriate that the men who came to Army since the policy was initiated in 2019 should be grandfathered into the existing policy.
On Friday, Rep. Gallagher’s office issued a statement which opened the door for a potential solution. The statement read in part:
While I wish all service academy athletes who wish to go pro the best, the fact is U.S. military service academies exist to produce warfighters, not professional athletes. By enrolling in one of these institutions, they took a spot from one of the thousands of other highly qualified Americans whose dream was to attend a service academy and serve their country in uniform.
That said, I recognize that current athletes signed up with the understanding that they could apply for a waiver to defer their military service. I will be working with my colleagues to identify a legislative fix that addresses this issue by grandfathering in existing athletes into the current system.
Until that legislative fix is implemented, however, Carter is in limbo. And his dreams of playing in the NFL — and being Army’s highest-ever NFL draft pick — are in doubt. Carter has the talent to play in the NFL, and the skill-set to be the highest NFL draft pick in Army history.
He is also willing to serve his country when the time comes, when his NFL dreams are over.
Here’s hoping he gets the chance to play, and to serve.