|Carter: '... My goal has been to be back for training camp. That's my focus.' (US Presswire)|
Andre Carter knew immediately that his 2011 season was over the moment he crumbled to the ground in Denver last December because of a quad injury. All the hard work to get back to a Pro Bowl level at age 32 wouldn't be resulting in a chance for the veteran defensive end/outside linebacker to perform in the playoffs, or New England's eventual trip to the Super Bowl. Instead, surgery and months of grueling rehabilitation was ahead.
Now, a little more than a month before the start of training camp, Carter's hard work is paying off again. With the free-agent market largely already picked clean, Carter is nearing a return -- he vows to be ready by camp -- and he is one of a handful of players who may have fallen off the overall NFL radar, but who are being monitored closely by executives. Longtime stalwart guard Eric Steinbach, who missed all of last season because of a back condition, is getting closer to working out for teams as well, and Antwan Odom, developing into a dominant pass rusher before a series of wrist problems robbed him of years off his career, aims to be on an NFL roster next month as well.
Perhaps one of them will be helping to boost a club's playoff run come this winter. These kind of calculated signings -- scooping up an established veteran coming off injury just before or during camp -- can often pay big dividends. Without the contributions of guys like Carter and Mark Anderson a year ago the Patriots likely wouldn't have been playing in the final game. Carter, at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, and always in freakish shape thanks to a discipline of fitness and conditioning, believes he can pick up right where he left off when things came to a sudden end on the Mile High turf.
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"Overall, I feel great," Carter said between rehab sessions near his home in California. "As you know, this quad injury is something that is not too common; you always hear about ACLs or MCLs, but to have it pop off the bone like that, I was like, 'Damn, I must have been doing some big thangs out there,'" at which point Carter let out one of his Barry White-worthy deep chuckles.
"But I had a follow-up last week and the doctors are pretty impressed with how I've come along, and as you know when it comes to rehab there's a certain timetable where you're supposed to be, and I've surpassed that. I'm ahead of the game and headed in the right direction. Even though I know this injury takes a long time, my goal has been to be back for training camp. That's my focus."
Carter, the seventh overall pick in the 2001 draft, was having probably his best season since 2002. He was a perfect fit in Bill Belichick's defensive designs while toggling between the 3-4 and 4-3, a dynamic, hybrid edge presence, picking up 10 sacks in 14 starts, including four in one game, a Pats record. After years of struggling to find his way in Washington's changing schemes, and frankly being outright misused at times, to have his comeback season with New England cut short just before the playoffs was heartbreaking.
He knew almost immediately that the season was over for him, and he'd be facing surgery and forced to be a sideline cheerleader for the remainder of the Patriots games. Carter's wife even broached the topic of retirement at one point, wondering if maybe he had put his body through enough, but after praying on it the decision was easy for the veteran.
"A few days after the injury I was like, 'I'm coming back, I'm not quite done yet'," he said.
Carter, who has posted 10 or more sacks four times in his career, reconvened with the same rehab group he worked with in 2009, when he ruptured his bicep, so there already was a comfort level there. His year-round fanaticism about fitness, his monster physique and mental focus gave him a strong foundation in the recovery. He's reached a stage now where he is jogging 30 minutes on a treadmill, doing lunges and jumping and also doing some work going against opposition out of a three-point stance.
He's always been a quick healer, and has a strong background in martial arts and MMA, open to trying new ways to stay limber and strong. Now he's doing substantial work with resistance bands, working all around his quad and knee, having to hold certain positions for a set period of time.
"From your quads to your glutes, everything's on fire, man!" Carter said, "but I tell you what, my legs are stronger than ever. The stuff you pick up in rehab, I always say, man, I wish I learned this a long time ago. I feel like I'm stronger now than ever."
Teams can never have too many pass rushers, something Belichick knows all too well. His sage moves to pick up Carter and Anderson a year ago point to that (a while back Belichick was trying to lure former sack-ace Kevin Carter out of retirement as well), so there will be a market for Carter, who made $2.25 million last season including a $500,000 signing bonus. Many expect he will end up back with the Pats.
"It would be great, it would be great," Carter said of a potential New England reunion. "But as you know it's a business as well. I'm just training my mind and body to prepare for another season, and hopefully a team will be interested in me and take a chance and I can go out and perform the best way I can. If it's New England, that would be awesome."
Similarly, teams are eyeing Odom as a possible value play, though he is much further removed from his top form. Odom suffered from wrist issues and had his career derailed by having a pin put in the wrong spot during a surgery when he was a Bengal, according to his agent, Tony Agnone, "that resulted in a worker's comp settlement."
Odom, 30, hasn't played more than a half season since 2008 and has only 10 appearances since 2009, but began lifting weights again several weeks ago. Teams like Baltimore and Denver are watching, knowing how little pass rush help is generally available. It makes sense, considering Odom racked up eight sacks in six games in 2009.
"He will be ready to go in July," Agnone said. "He's starting to get into the full mode now."
Steinbach, 32, was an anchor on the Browns offensive line, but a problem with a bone fragment on his spinal cord nerves (hurt just writing that clause, ouch), required surgery prior to the start of the 2011 season and ended up with his release. From 2003 to 2010 he missed only three games, however, and agent Jack Bechta said three teams have been in contact with him about the guard.
He was cleared to begin full work in his recovery on April 1 and is at his playing weight of 295, Bechta said, with improved strength. Steinbach is probably around 85 percent now, working out daily in Chicago.
"He will be ready to start working out for teams in mid-July," Bechta said.
Barring a setback, all three could be back in the league in short order, and I wouldn't bet against them making an impact. There are always redemptive stories in the NFL, and those seeds are often sewn in the downtime between OTAs and the start of camp, as injured players regain health. These veterans want the chance to go out on their own terms, and that day could be coming soon enough.
"I have a good work ethic, and I know I have some sick genetics," Carter said. "I've always been a fast healer. One of my coaches said, if you put those two together that's a great advantage. I'm dedicated to coming back and I'm going to do it and I want to be a leader on the field. That feeling has not subsided yet, and I know I can still give a little bit more."