The Cowboys' season is over, but our coverage is still going strong. We're running down the team's top 10 2013 assets -- and this entry brings us to #8, Linebacker Bruce Carter.

Average is a tough thing to be. Average means you're not competing for a championship, depriving your fans of the hope of immediate contention. Average also means you're working with average draft assets, depriving fans of the ability to bank everything on the bright hope of future contention. The Cowboys were average this year, and they've been average for quite a while. Building a strong team despite that status quo isn't easy.

Fortunately for the Cowboys, they do have a nice core of players assembled. They have drafted well over the past three years (a rarety for this franchise) and those young cornerstones, as well as a few holdovers from the Bill Parcells era, give the team a decent base. What we'll do here over is go through the team's roster and rank the ten players most indispensable to the Cowboys' success. Keep in mind that this isn't about the players who stand out most relative to their peers at their position -- LP Ladouceur may be the best long snapper in the league, but he's still a longsnapper, so he won't be here.

This also isn't strictly about the future. Anthony Spencer is a free agent, and there is no guarantee the Cowboys bring him back. Jason Witten and Tony Romo have reached the age where they're far more likely to decline than improve. But those three players will be featured prominently on the list. Think of this as a list for 2013. Over the coming year, these should be the best of the Cowboys' best; their most important pieces in the hunt for contention.

#8: Linebacker Bruce Carter

Bruce Carter s conventional numbers don t jump off the page. He didn t come close to leading the Cowboys in tackles. He didn t register a sack, a forced or recovered fumble or a pick. He wasn t the team s best inside linebacker, and was probably only their fourth-best overall linebacker.

With all that being said, Bruce Carter is an absolute stud.

Carter was drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft (40th overall) after a torn ACL dropped his stock from surefire first rounder to who knows, man. He was a productive player at North Carolina; a converted safety who found his niche as a 4-3 outside LB and became one of the top linebackers in the nation. He reportedly ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash (which would be fantastic even if he was a cornerback) with a 440-pound bench press max. He led all division 1 players with five blocker kicks during his sophomore season. You get it he s a physical marvel. The Cowboys were willing to take a chance on him even knowing he wouldn t play much as a rookie, because the upside was just too tantalizing to pass up.

Carter barely played in 2011, totaling 8 tackles and making more of an impact on special teams than on the defense, which was overly reliant on veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking. When the Cowboys signed linebacker Dan Connor in the offseason, some interpreted it as a sign Dallas was unimpressed with Carter. Those worries did not last long, as Carter came into training camp and wowed just about everyone in Oxnard, quickly cementing his status as Sean Lee s sidekick and fellow inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense.

Carter s blinding speed and nose for the ball were evident from the start of the season, as he and Lee formed one of the best interior linebacker duos in the NFL. When Lee was lost for the season six games in, Carter assumed the defense s on-field playcalling responsibilities, wearing the communication helmet which ensured a yelling Rob Ryan was essentially lodged in his ear. The defense suffered without Lee (who will place very prominently on this list) but that was no fault of Carter s.

This article began by downplaying Bruce Carter s traditional numbers. Normally, that would be an issue. In this case, it is not. Why? Because football s a tough game to evaluate. There s more to playing linebacker than sitting in the middle of the field and waiting for a running back or tight end to get to you. Carter s strength is his speed, and he uses it impeccably to fly to the ballcarrier before he can do any damage. If you exclude sacks, Carter led the Cowboys in tackles for loss with 9. Some perspective: Sean Lee had 2. Anthony Spencer totaled 3. Patrick Willis, widely considered the league s best inside linebacker, had 5. And he played 16 games. Had Carter played a full season, he almost certainly would have ranked among the league s best, right there with Daryl Washington, Connor Barwin and Lavonte David (but not J.J. Watt. Nobody came remotely close to J.J. Watt. There s a nonzero chance he s literally not human).

Carter is still far from a complete player. His instincts in coverage are merely average and he s lucky he can compensate with speed. He also has not been a very effective blitzer to this (very limited) point in his career. We don't yet know how he'll play in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 defense (though he had no issues in that scheme at North Carolina).

But Carter showed us a breathtaking glimpse of what is possible when he and Lee were on the field together in 2012. If you want a best case scenario, watch the Super Bowl and pay extra-close attention to San Francisco s ILB pairing, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They anchor an exceptional 49ers defense, and Lee and Carter could do the same in Dallas. The key is health. If Carter can keep developing at the same rate he did between his first year and the end of his second, he ll be part of a superstar ILB pairing very, very soon.

The list, as it stands:

#8: LB Bruce Carter

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