Bruce Carter better be worth wait

IRVING, Texas -- Bruce Carter was on the field for fewer than 50 defensive plays last season. Not one of them was memorable.

Then again, we didn't expect anything from Carter last season because he was still recovering from a torn knee ligament he suffered during his last season at North Carolina.

He essentially spent last season rehabbing. And learning. And watching.

Well, it's time to play.

Bradie James is gone, reunited with Wade Phillips in Houston. Dan Connor, a free-agent acquisition, is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

So Carter is working with the starters during the Underwear Olympics, also known as the NFL's offseason.

That's cool, but the Cowboys need Carter to be the starter when training camp begins and they need him to keep the job when the regular season begins in September against the New York Giants.

Anything less means he was a poor draft pick. Hope that doesn't sound harsh, but that's the reality of his situation.

The Cowboys didn't spend a second-round draft choice on a dude with a serious knee injury for him to be a backup. Or a role player in the nickel or dime pass defense.

They drafted him because they believed he would've been a first-round pick if not for the knee injury. The Cowboys did the same thing with linebacker Sean Lee -- and we see almost every week why they tabbed him as one of the best players in the 2010 draft.

"He's one of those guys who's growing every day and you can see it. He's becoming more comfortable," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Carter. "He has a long way to go. I know it. He knows it. Everybody knows it."

Carter is still learning the nuances of moving from outside linebacker, his college position, to inside linebacker. Much of the switch involves football lingo such as "reading the proper keys" and "playing with power."

Let me translate.

At outside linebacker in the 4-3 defense, he had a defensive end protecting him, so he could flow unimpeded to the football. In the 3-4, the inside linebackers must take on 330-pound guards, shed them and find the football.

It's a man's job that requires strength, athleticism and courage -- not necessarily in that order.

"He's the guy we thought he was," said defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, a man known for hyperbole. "It takes a while to make all the adjustments, but he's working hard and watching a lot of film.

"We're working on his eyes so he can see what we need him to see as a play develops. It takes time to adjust to taking on 330-pound guards, but he plays with a lot of power."

The Cowboys have created competition at the position, which Garrett loves to do, with the acquisition of Connor.

Connor played in 15 games last season, starting 11 once Jon Beason was placed on injured reserve, and he totaled 75 tackles and forced a fumble. He's the epitome of a solid NFL linebacker.

We would expect nothing less from Penn State's all-time leading tackler. The Cowboys know exactly what he's going to give them -- when he's on the field.

Knee and hip injuries, though, have cost him chunks of two of his four NFL seasons. He's averaged just 10 games per season since Carolina drafted him in the third round.

Still, he's more than capable of beating out Carter, which should ensure the coaching staff has the second-year linebacker's full attention this season.

"I'm trying to learn the playbook like the back of my hand," Carter said. "Once I do that, I can play my game, do my part and make plays. It starts with learning the scheme so I can play fast."

The Cowboys need Carter to start because he's an outstanding athlete who had a knack for making plays in college.

Right now, DeMarcus Ware and Lee are the only consistent playmakers on the Cowboys' defense. It's difficult for Jay Ratliff to be a playmaker when he's getting double-teamed virtually every play.

Brandon Carr, as good as he is, has never been a guy who intercepts a lot of passes, and first-round pick Morris Claiborne has yet to do it at pro football's highest level.

The Cowboys intercepted just 15 passes, tied for 17th in the NFL. They forced 25 turnovers, 16th in the league.

Too many times in the fourth quarter -- they blew leads five times -- the Cowboys didn't have someone to make a play and end the threat.

Carter can be that type of player, but we need to see it this season.