Potential top draft pick Jalen Carter faces charges in fatal crash, changing draft calculus

Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter waves to the crowd before the national championship game against TCU, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif.

INDIANAPOLIS – Entering Wednesday at the NFL Combine, the discussion surrounding the Bears was all about Will Anderson Jr. vs. Jalen Carter. Who was the better choice for the No. 1 overall draft pick? Anderson, the Alabama pass rusher, or Carter, the Georgia defensive tackle.

All that changed in a matter of hours.

Just before 8 a.m. Wednesday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Carter had been present at a Jan. 15 car crash that killed a teammate and a Georgia football staffer. Within hours of the story breaking, Carter faced misdemeanor charges for reckless driving and racing in Athens-Clarke County Georgia. The 21-year-old failed to show up for his 10:30 a.m. media session at the combine in Indianapolis.

Hours after Georgia celebrated its second consecutive national championship, a 2021 Ford Expedition carrying four members of the football program crashed in the early morning hours of Jan. 15. Georgia recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy, 24, and offensive lineman Devin Willock, 20, died in the crash. Athens police originally characterized it as a one-car crash and said LeCroy was driving too fast.

That narrative appears to have changed.

Carter, a prospective top pick and one of the best defenders in the draft, is alleged to have been racing in a 2021 Jeep Trackhawk alongside the Ford Expedition, weaving in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed in “an apparent attempt to outdistance each other,” according to the arrest warrant.

The Ford Expedition left the road, crashed into two utility poles, two trees and an apartment building. The warrant issued Wednesday stated that at one point it was traveling at 104 miles per hour.

The Journal-Constitution’s reporting indicated that Carter may have briefly stopped at the scene of the 2:45 a.m. crash, then left the scene, then was later asked to return to the scene by the police through a Georgia football staffer.

Per the Journal-Constitution’s reporting, Carter gave the police inconsistent stories about where he was at the time of the crash. At one point, he told the police he was at an apartment a mile away. Later, he said he witnessed the crash from a short distance away.

Carter is returning to Athens, Georgia, he announced in a statement posted to social media Wednesday afternoon. In his statement, he said “numerous media reports have also circulated this morning containing inaccurate information” regarding his potential involvement in the crash.

The Bears and other NFL teams with top draft picks now are left wondering what to make of these latest developments and the charges that Carter faces. Carter had been frequently linked to the Bears because he’s generally considered one of the best defensive linemen in the draft, and the Bears’ roster is in serious need of talented defensive linemen.

Legally, Carter is facing misdemeanor charges. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor in Georgia is a $1,000 fine or up to one year in jail.

Plenty of NFL players have been arrested in the past and gone on to keep playing pro football. But there are, rightfully so, some serious concerns about using a highly coveted top draft pick on Carter – or drafting him at all.

The Bears haven’t had the No. 1 draft pick since 1947. Selecting Carter with that pick now would be a distraction and general manager Ryan Poles would face some serious questions.

At least at the top of the draft, Carter seems to be out of the question, given Wednesday’s developments. The question, instead, is how far will he fall and will any team be willing to give him an opportunity.

The Bears are believed to be interested in trading out of the top pick. One popular scenario is a pick swap with the Indianapolis Colts at No. 4. But that theory has relied on the fact that one of Alabama’s Anderson or Georgia’s Carter, both considered elite defenders, could still be there at No. 4.

If Carter is off the table for teams, Anderson seems unlikely to make it past the Arizona Cardinals – who, like the Bears, don’t need a quarterback – at No. 3.

GMs at the top of the draft, Poles included, suddenly are recalculating everything.

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Shaw Local News Network. He has covered the Bears since 2020. Prior to writing about the Bears, he covered high school sports for the Northwest Herald and contributed to Friday Night Drive. Sean joined Shaw Media in 2016.