Jalen Carter’s maturity is being judged, along with physical traits, as NFL draft approaches

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ATHENS, Ga. – It was one thing for the NFL teams that descended on the University of Georgia’s Pro Day on Wednesday to assess the physical package offered by defensive tackle Jalen Carter.

Surely, there were mixed reviews on that.

Carter didn’t even finish the array of drills conducted by Kansas City Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen, who carries the reputation of administering some of the most grueling positional workouts on the pro day circuit. At the end of the workout, Carter was seen flat on his back, appearing exhausted as he received treatment from an athletic trainer apparently tending to muscle tightness or cramping.

Although Carter was widely panned for his workout – which came a day before he pleaded no-contest to two misdemeanor charges stemming from a mid-January accident that resulted in the deaths of two people – not everyone was ready to pile on.

“I wasn’t as down on him as the reports said,” a key decision-maker from one NFL team told USA TODAY Sports, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The person did not want to be identified due to competitive factors. “I didn’t think he was that bad. His workout was good.”

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder – especially when it comes to evaluating football talent this time of year in the NFL.

And mixed messages from teams are typical, too.

A personnel executive from another NFL team, also speaking under the condition of anonymity, told USA TODAY Sports that Carter’s workout was less than impressive – and that “it wasn’t a huge surprise” as it mirrored concerns about his dedication to the game.

In the weeks before the NFL draft begins on April 27, the range of opinions on Carter will be significant in determining his stock. By some accounts in recent weeks, as Georgia capped a repeat national championship drive, Carter has been hailed as the most talented player in the draft. If not in the running for the top pick overall in a quarterback-centric league, he almost certainly ranked as a top-five pick.

Now, Carter’s stock at the top of the draft is not so much a sure thing. That’s not to suggest that he will plummet on draft boards. But NFL decision-makers pretty much agree that the assessment of Carter’s physical traits only begin the evaluation.

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On Wednesday, the 6-foot, 3-inch Carter weighed nine pounds more than the 314 pounds he weighed at the combine in Indianapolis less than three weeks ago.

To some degree, the extra weight may not be alarming, given the size of his frame. Then again, it might be viewed in another context. He knew intense scrutiny would come with the pro day, and it was hardly a good look to have gained weight while not finishing the workout.

“It’s another data point,” the personnel executive said. “It’s not helpful. But also, he has been dealing with some stuff. Big guys eat when they stress.”

Carter, 21, settled his legal issues on Thursday. Charged with racing and reckless driving — which occurred shortly before the crash of another vehicle that resulted in the deaths of Chandler LeCroy, the football program staffer who drove the other vehicle, and former teammate Devin Willock, a passenger – Carter received probation for one year in addition to community service and a $1,000 fine.

Questions about Carter’s maturity and lifestyle have surely escalated since the Jan. 15 accident.

A year ago, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart fielded many questions from teams about Travon Walker, the linebacker drafted No. 1 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s standard for the top prospects. But this is different.

“With the situation, probably more questions, more direct,” Smart told reporters after the workout. “You just try to be honest, talk about the experiences we had with Jalen here.”

Carter visited with teams, but as expected, didn’t speak to the media as teammates did following their workouts. Smart spent time with Carter on Tuesday, when he attended one of the opening sessions of UGA’s spring football drills. After being isolated in recent weeks while training, Smart thought it was important for Carter to get back around other players.

“I can only imagine what he’s dealing with internally,” Smart said. “Knowing the outcome of that accident, there’s some mental health things that you have to be able to help with. I can’t speak to what he’s going through; he’s got to answer those questions. We’re certainly going to try to support him as much as we can.”

Teammates were predictably upbeat when asked what they sensed about Carter’s psyche upon his return to campus in the aftermath of the tragedy and with the legal issues in play.

“Jalen’s a rock. He knows who he is,” said quarterback Stetson Bennett, who has had to answer many questions about his own behavior after a January arrest in Dallas for public intoxication. “We all know who he is. We know what comes with the territory, where we are now and that things are going to be out, situations we put ourselves in. Be responsible. Be a grown man. It’s our job now. He understands that. I think he’s in a good place.”

Nolan Smith, the spectacular linebacker whose stock has risen since his phenomenal performance at the combine, is effusive in vouching for Carter.

“Best teammate I’ve ever been around,” Smith said. “Misunderstood person.”

Smith said he was impressed by Carter’s handling of his personal crisis during the combine. After arriving in Indianapolis to undergo physical exams and meet with teams (Carter had already opted out of workouts), the arrest warrant was issued in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia. Carter left Indianapolis, turned himself in and was booked and released within hours. Then he returned to the combine and resumed interviews with teams.

“We’re at the combine, focusing on trying to put our best foot forward and that happens,” Smith said. “And he took care of that, then came back to the combine and still handled his business and was professional. I think he handled it amazing.”

No, Carter shouldn’t get brownie points for having to leave the combine in the first place. Yet he returned when others might have stayed away. Which is one more point for teams to consider in assessing one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft.

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