PHILADELPHIA — The Eagles‘ decision to green-light the selection of Georgia defensive end Jalen Carter in the 2023 draft came down to one final meeting between chairman/CEO Jeffrey Lurie, his son, Julian, general manager Howie Roseman and coach Nick Sirianni on the eve of the first round.
The organization had been scouting Carter, a gifted game-disruptor, for the past two years and conducted a deep dive into his background during the pre-draft process led by adviser to the general manager/chief security officer Dom DiSandro. Based on performance, Carter was the highest-rated player on the Eagles’ draft board.
But there was a lot to consider.
Carter had been involved in a fatal Jan. 15 crash in Athens, Georgia, following the Bulldogs’ championship parade. He ultimately pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing and was sentenced to 12 months of probation, a $1,000 fine and 80 hours of community service. The vehicle Carter was alleged to be racing against crashed, resulting in the death of Georgia teammate Devin Willock and recruiting staffer Chandler LeCroy.
Multiple Georgia coaches declined to go to bat for Carter during the pre-draft process, according to team sources, in part because they had grown disenchanted with his practice habits and attitude. His behavior as a teammate came into question as well, notably after he struck then-Georgia linebacker Quay Walker in the face during a fall practice in 2020. It was described by team sources as a “knockout punch.”
Walker, now a second-year linebacker with the Green Bay Packers, confirmed Carter punched him but downplayed the altercation, telling ESPN: “That always happened on defense. It never became a problem. We can get into it and then after practice we’d be smiling, laughing.”
With the 10th pick in the draft, the reigning NFC champions knew they had a shot to land the tackle, understanding he might fall because of off-field concerns. And Carter wanted Philly. He was impressed with the Eagles during pre-draft meetings and wanted to reunite with former Georgia teammates Nakobe Dean and Jordan Davis.
With uncertainty swirling about whether the Eagles were comfortable, Carter’s camp got proactive. Carter placed calls to multiple top-level Eagles executives on the doorstep of the draft, per sources, including Roseman, to assure them they would get the best version of him and would not regret taking a chance.
Those calls were the final pieces to a puzzle the Eagles had spent months trying to put together.
Roseman, Sirianni and the Luries decided in that final meeting that they would take Carter, depending on how the board fell, though they were not convinced he would drop into their range, a team source said.
But they got proactive too, trading up to the ninth spot on draft night to take Carter once he dropped.
The Eagles knew the pick came with risk, but they also believed in his upside. Carter, whom the Eagles declined to make available for this story, was rated as the top college player in the 2023 draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper. Much of the scouting community shared that sentiment because of his unique blend of size, strength and agility — traits that have led to moments of dominance this summer.
Some in the Eagles organization felt the 22-year-old could be not only a significant building block for the future, but also a generational talent. And Philadelphia believed it was uniquely equipped to help Carter stay on the right path thanks to the presence of veteran leaders in offensive linemen Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson and defensive linemen Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, two of whom would be in the position room with him daily. They also believed he’d benefit from being reunited with Dean and Davis, who vouched for Carter during the lead-up to the draft.
“All of us when we were 21 and 22, hopefully have grown a lot from that time, and you just really want to get to know the person and what’s in their heart,” Roseman said on draft night. “I think when we got to know Jalen, we just felt like here’s a kid that he does love football. Obviously, he’s a winner. He won in high school, he won in college.
“We feel like we have really good people in this building. We have really good support staff. We have really good players who are good people. We have really good coaches. We felt like it was a good fit for us.”
CARTER WAS A standout from the minute he entered Apopka High School in 2016, a football powerhouse outside Orlando, Florida, that has produced players such as Warren Sapp and Trey Hendrickson.
It wasn’t just Carter’s size — 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds as a freshman — but the way he could move. Like when he skied for a windmill dunk during a basketball game, or made an Odell Beckham-like one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone during a 7-on-7 football game.
On the gridiron, Apopka ran a single-wing offense and used Carter as a blocking back.
“He was just crushing people, taking people off the field to the track-type deal,” said Hunter Wood, a trainer and former Apopka strength coach.
Carter moved to the defensive side of the ball for his senior year in 2019. Apopka coach Jeff Rolson remembers a spring game against a Jacksonville team that year in which Carter routinely pierced into the backfield. The coach said he had never seen an interior defensive lineman take over like that.
In practice, Rolson had to ask Carter to ease off the gas pedal so the offense had a chance to execute a play. Rolson described Carter as a “self-contained, small-circle guy” with a “big heart” who met every expectation, while echoing a couple of his current teammates: Carter is not someone who trusts easily.
“With scouts, with potential teams that were drafting him, I just said, ‘You’ve got to build a relationship with Jalen.’ Because he’s not going to just jump on board — ‘Hey, whatever you say’ — you’ve got to get to know him a little bit and he’s got to understand where you’re coming from,” Rolson said. “I think once that happens, he’s a guy you can count on.”
Carter’s top-level play continued at Georgia. He was a unanimous All-American and named first-team All-SEC in 2022 while helping the Bulldogs to their second straight national championship. He posted 3 sacks, 7 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles last season. He grew a reputation of being a bright-lights player, able to turn up the intensity and performance on game day with spectacular results, while also helping teammates. When he learned walk-ons didn’t get free meals, he used his scholarship money to buy daily lunches for walk-on lineman Weston Wallace.
His practice habits weren’t as universally admired. Some Georgia coaches, according to sources familiar with the pre-draft process, relayed that Carter didn’t always go hard, had an abrasive demeanor at times and often played by his own set of rules — behavior that went largely unchecked in the new college world of the transfer portal and NIL, where opportunities abound for star players elsewhere if they become unhappy.
Linebacker Nolan Smith, Carter’s former Georgia-turned-Eagles teammate, remained steadfast in his support leading up to the draft.
“I know [Jalen] is just one of those guys that you can really count on to not only do his job, but he’s going to do his job plus more and then come dap you up and get everybody hyped up.”
THE EAGLES KNEW through their investigative work that Carter was likely to be named as a defendant in multiple civil suits stemming from the January crash in Athens, a source familiar with the team’s pre-draft vetting said.
In May, Willock’s father filed a suit against the University of Georgia Athletic Association and named Carter as a defendant.
In July, Victoria Bowles, who survived the wreck, filed a lawsuit against the UGA Athletic Association and Carter, accusing him of illegally leaving the scene without speaking to law enforcement and failing to render aid.
Carter was driving with a suspended license at the time, stemming from a prior speeding ticket in Lake County, Florida, that had not been resolved. Carter was not charged with driving with a suspended license and cannot retroactively be charged now that the case is closed, Carter’s attorney Kim Stephens said. According to Athens Solicitor General Will Fleenor, officials ran Carter’s license through a national database in March when the file against him was opened, but it did not show his license was suspended in Florida, likely because the issue had been resolved by then. His license was reinstated Jan. 26 — 11 days after the incident — following payment of $150.50, according to documents reviewed by ESPN.
The database did show his driving privileges in Georgia were suspended effective Feb. 10 — nearly a month after the incident — as a result of a separate driving infraction, Fleenor said.
The off-field issues affected Carter’s pre-draft prep. He left the scouting combine March 1 to return to Athens to face the misdemeanor charges. Georgia’s pro day was two weeks later. Carter arrived nine pounds heavier than at the combine and was unable to finish his position drills. Some within the Eagles organization didn’t think it was as bad as it looked — he was going through drills and trying to keep pace with Smith, an outside linebacker who weighs about 75 pounds less than Carter — but it was clear he needed to get into better shape.
“I felt conditioned, but I guess I wasn’t, and that was just me,” Carter said the night of the draft. “I should have conditioned a little bit more or a lot more before the pro day.”
During the period between organized team activities and training camp, Carter returned to Florida and enlisted Wood’s help.
“I didn’t talk to him about the pro day stuff,” Wood said. “I kind of went blank slate with him, talked about what he wanted to accomplish on the year, talked about his goals and kind of expressed to him, ‘This is what I think it’s going to take to do this. Our goal is for you to be in the best shape possible when you show up to camp,’ and to me, he was locked in.
“Somehow or another he developed a chip on his shoulder about things he wanted to get done this year.”
What started as drips of that all-world ability at the beginning of camp turned into more of a steady stream. On his first NFL snap in Philadelphia’s preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens, Carter made fast work of guard Ben Cleveland, then sliced into the backfield to knock down quarterback Josh Johnson — a play that quickly went viral on social media. A couple of days later, he delivered one of his more jaw-dropping reps during a joint practice against the Cleveland Browns when he pancaked All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio. Carter is setting his sights high, setting a personal goal to become Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“In college, I was using a lot of finesse. Now I’m bringing it back to my strength and my power,” Carter said. “Everything the coach is telling me to do I’m agreeing with, and it’s working for me.”
Veterans tend to be measured in their early evaluations of rookies, but not in this case.
“He’s very physical,” cornerback Darius Slay said on his podcast. “Quicker than what you think and stronger than he looks. He’s pushing folks back.” Lane Johnson, one of the best tackles in the game, said: “This guy is ready to play right now and ready to take control of a game right now. He’s a game-changer.”
There have been a couple of tense moments, such as when Carter jumped into the fray of a sideline dustup during joint sessions with the Browns and got physical with a Cleveland player, and was again in the mix when things got testy between the Eagles and Indianapolis Colts before a large brawl broke out. But to this point, a team source said, no issues have been raised during the Eagles’ weekly organizational meetings about Carter’s behavior.
Described by teammates, coaches and team employees as quiet and guarded, Carter can be a challenge to get a read on, especially as he adapts to a new environment. That task has been made easier with a group of former Georgia players known as the Philly Dawgs: Davis, Dean, Smith and cornerback Kelee Ringo.
Georgia’s coaching staff, sources said, felt Carter was a different person when around Davis, who has remained a strong influence to this point on the pro level.
“Knowing those signs. Knowing when he doesn’t feel like talking, knowing when he doesn’t feel like being bothered with. It’s just little stuff like that,” Davis said of how his outgoing personality blends with Carter, who is more introverted. “Everybody has their days. Human nature. If you can pick up on that body language, if you can pick up on how he’s feeling. I’ve been with him so long I know what kind of day he’s having.”
Other veterans, meanwhile, have also been assisting Carter. Graham was one of the first people to approach Carter when he came into the building and was quick to show him the ropes. And Cox has been a constant in his ear.
“Fletch is a very good guy,” Carter said. “He talks to me every day, calls me. Even when we were [on break] he was calling me every day, checking on my weight. He’s been doing that ever since.”
Cox and Graham are in the twilight of their careers. One of the reasons the Eagles brought them back for their 12th and 14th seasons, respectively, is to show the up-and-coming players how to attack their crafts. They have both legacy and another Super Bowl run on the line, double the reason to pour their energy into bringing the best out of Carter.
“I told him, I’m trying to get him paid for his family,” Graham said, “so just make sure you come in and follow me, follow the guys because we’ve got a good group, and get to work.”
Green Bay Packers reporter Rob Demovsky contributed to this story.