MOBILE, Ala. -- Former Army star Andre Carter II enters the NFL combine this week as a unicorn draft prospect. He's poised to become the first Army player drafted higher than the seventh round in more than a half-century.
Carter is a 6-foot-6, 255-pound rush end who led the nation in sacks per game in 2021. He is nearly certain to be the highest-drafted Army player since Glenn Davis, a Heisman Trophy winner known as Mr. Outside, went No. 2 overall in 1947.
Carter's draft path could end up being tracked all the way to Capitol Hill, as the attention his professional career yields may become the focal point of a Congressional debate later this year. In December, Congress passed a law that's going to eventually eliminate the opportunity for military academy graduates like Carter to defer service requirements and pursue professional sports.
After the rule passed, Carter and others attempting to go pro both this year and next got legacied into the old rule, enacted in 2019, that allows deferment. That leaves officials at Army, Navy and Air Force worried that athletes like Carter with high-end potential will not attend the academies or will transfer out early in their careers.
"Why do we want to repel people who want to serve?" Air Force coach Troy Calhoun told ESPN. "They want an opportunity in that short, short window that's available to make the most of their gifts and talents. Well, let's be forward thinking here. If not, then we don't attract the best, because we're putting up roadblocks."
For the road to be clear, it will likely take an act of Congress. Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from the state of Washington, is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. He told ESPN he hasn't decided whether he'll attempt to bring forward a proposed law to try to change the rule back to the 2019 version.
Smith said it's not the obligation of Congress to help the service academies in recruiting so they can win games on the field. But he was compelled by the argument that the rare players who do make it professionally from the academies offer priceless free advertising. (He credits both Ryan McCarthy, the former US Secretary of the Army, and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for stressing this point to him.)
"The pertinent argument is ... this actually helps the service academy mission," Smith told ESPN. "It's not to win football games. It's to recruit, train and retain the best America has to offer. You can argue, you get an Andre Carter, David Robinson or Napoleon McCallum, a top-flight athlete brings attention to the service academy and it's easier to recruit for the academies and enables the military academy to fulfill its mission."
The attention for Carter is growing quickly. His story has created some buzz, and while there some ambiguity of how high he'll go, he should be chosen somewhere in the draft's first two days, which encompasses the first three rounds.
Regardless, after each Senior Bowl practice, a cocoon of media formed around Carter, who gladly told the story of early wake-up calls, rigorous academics and responsibilities of being a cadet.
"Definitely, the USMA has just provided me with so much," Carter told ESPN. "Just the way I want to live my life. And I've learned so much and I've met so many great people. It's something I'm going to take with me the rest of my life. I'm just truly grateful and appreciative."
Carter was just the second Army player to ever play in the Senior Bowl, following the Eagles' Brett Toth in 2018. But the chance to go through the draft process this year was in peril, after the law was tucked into Section 553 of the National Defense Authorization Act. It says that pursuit of a professional sport immediately after graduation would be viewed as a "breach of service obligation."
An outcry over Carter's future led to the tweak nearly a week later, essentially legacying academy upperclassmen. As his story bubbled to the service, it illuminated how important both the publicity from his rise as a draft prospect and the ability to pitch athletes on having pro sports as an option is for the academies.
"It's a significant difference in recruiting in the fact that schools couldn't immediately use it against us," said Jeff Monken, Army's coach since 2014. "A lot of kids have aspirations to play in the NFL and don't want to wait [after two years of service], and coaches from other schools tell them they will. It's an eliminator for us, as sometimes we can't even get in the conversation."
Army athletic director Mike Buddie told ESPN that, in reality, few players will really use the deferment. He estimated there would be a handful of players every decade from Army and perhaps a dozen per decade overall from the three academies combined who are good enough to reach NFL.
"For us, it's all about opportunity," Buddie said. "Obviously, we're not getting many commits from four- and five-star kids. But if a young person comes to the academy and shows a proclivity in medicine, we reward them and send them to medical school. If they earn a Rhodes scholarship, we send them to Oxford. To me, this is an extension of that."
McCarthy, the former Secretary of the U.S. Army, was part of the process for the Department of Defense passing the guidance in 2019 allowing the potential deferment for academy athletes. McCarthy went so far as to reach out to NFL general managers interested in prospects from Army such as Toth (Eagles), Jon Rhattigan (Seahawks) and Elijah Riley (Steelers) to let the GMs know that the academies were serious about the rule change.
"I wanted them to know that the institution was behind it," McCarthy told ESPN. "This isn't a gimmick or going to go away. We're behind these young men. Before this whole issue arose last fall, we were finally at a point where teams were going to draft guys. It was real and teams were going to be behind it."
McCarthy expressed his disappointment in the law passed in December and agrees with Smith and the academy coaches and officials on the power of the marketing opportunity.
"Every Sunday that Andre Carter puts his uniform on, it's going to be noticed and mentioned," McCarthy said. "And every time the service academy football coaches visit a high school kid in America, they should be able to see that opportunity is there for them if they can achieve the results on the football field.
"It's very rare. It's extraordinary to make the NFL. I think this is something that can be managed. It's such a small number, it's almost insignificant."
There's a feeling at the academies that the limitations in recruiting by kids crossing the academies off the list will end up, down the line, limiting the caliber of officers that the academies can recruit and produce. The government isn't focused on the ability to compete on the field, but the coaches say that they could end up limiting the potential officer talent coming through the academies.
"Why not let these young men and women shine a light on military service?" said first-year Navy coach Brian Newberry. "It's a win-win. The transfer portal and NIL have already put the service academies at a disadvantage, and taking away this opportunity puts all three Academies at even more of a disadvantage in recruiting some of the best student-athletes in the country."
Air Force's lone NFL Combine participant this year is Kyle Patterson, a star tight end who is one of Calhoun's most decorated recruits in his 16 seasons there. Patterson had offers from UCLA, Washington and Arizona, but Calhoun said Patterson committed to Air Force for the chance to be both an officer and an NFL player.
Calhoun said Patterson likely wouldn't have committed to Air Force if the rule wasn't being discussed back in 2019. And if it hadn't passed, he could have transferred out after two years and played nearly anywhere in the country.
"To bring in top level talent to the academy and football program, the pro option is a very important linchpin," said Nathan Pine, the Air Force athletic director. "Whether they make it or not, most elite athletes believe they can. Having that door open to them is very important to the academies."
And that door is ultimately going to be up to Congress. Smith told ESPN that he "hasn't really decided" if he's going to bring something forward this year. He points out there's "a lot going on in the world."
The law that passed in December was introduced by Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican, whose belief is based on a premise he's stated previously: "U.S. military service academies exist to produce warfighters, not professional athletes."
But McCarthy expressed his disappointment in the law passed in December and agrees with Rep. Smith and the academy coaches and officials on the power of the marketing opportunity.
"Every Sunday that Andre Carter puts his uniform on, it's going to be noticed and mentioned," he said. "And every time the service academy football coaches visit a high school kid in America, they should be able to see that opportunity is there for them if they can achieve the results on the football field."