Adam Carriker will have to work hard this season to avoid the dreaded bust label that stalks first round picks like a bad groupie. Though it's still way too early to hang that stone around his neck, 2009 is make or break for the St. Louis Rams defensive tackle and 2007 first round pick.
For a "make or break" season, 2009 is already off to a rough start for Carriker, whose ankle injury (the same one that dogged him in his first two years at Nebraska and again last season) flared up and made Gary Gibson the current starter at left defensive tackle. The good news is that Gary Gibson looks to have been a nice get for the team, adding depth at a position where they've lacked it recently. The extra motivation for Carriker to fight his way back to the starting job doesn't hurt either.
But is Carriker really a bust? The fact that injuries have plagued his career since he tore a labrum late in his rookie season feed that impression. You can't be a success if you're not on the field, and being on the field at less than 100% in the NFL doesn't make it any easier for young players to develop into reliable starters.Being moved around the defensive line in his first season didn't help the rookie's development either.
The sorry state of the Rams run defense hasn't helped perceptions of Carriker either. Carriker might get too much blame for the porous limestone that was the Rams run defense. According to data at Football Outsiders, Carriker has done better than it seems against the run since his rookie year. The chart below looks at rushing plays targeting Carriker over the last two seasons and accounts for the number of stops he made, the number of defeats (total number of plays by a defensive player that prevent the offense from gaining first down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in a turnover.) and the yards per attempt on those plays.
Carriker's rookie numbers are nice, and his numbers last year could have been a lot worse when factoring in a bum ankle. The Rams problems against the run had much more to do with the team's weak spots at linebacker and strong safety, not to mention the lack of a stronger nose tackle.
Against the pass Carriker hasn't shown himself to be the force many thought he could be. He did have two sacks (and a safety) in 2007; one of those came while he was lined up at DE. He didn't ge much penetration last year, but that certainly had to do with his ankle and a defense that didn't push tackles send up the field as heavily as others. Under Spagnuolo and Flajole, Carriker is expected to do better in a more aggressive system, where he'll play in the gaps rather than directly over a lineman (for more on that see past editions of the Playbook Projector).
While it's still too early to call Adam Carriker a bust, he definitely has to prove himself this year. Will he work his way back up to the first team? It's very possible. I would point out that he hasn't been playing since August 7, when he was injured in the scrimmage. Being on the third team means he'll get plenty of reps this week against the Chiefs. Easing him back into the banging and clanging of regular season play probably isn't a bad idea either, first team or not.
As you watch Carriker attempt to climb his way back to relevancy, keep an eye on how he shoots gaps in action against Kansas City this week, and watch who he gets paired with on the line in the game and in practice. As for the bust label, his ankle might have the final say on that matter.