Now that President Joe Biden has signed the 2023 omnibus appropriations bill, one NFL draft hopeful can breathe a sigh of relief, having moved one big step closer to realizing his professional football dream.
The sprawling $1.7 trillion government spending bill for the 2023 fiscal year, which President Biden officially signed into law on Thursday, includes a revised provision that allows certain service-academy athletes with professional-sports aspirations to continue petitioning the United States military to defer their mandatory post-graduation service. This is a significant development for Andre Carter II, a highly touted edge-rushing prospect out of Army.
Graduates of military academies -- namely Army, Navy and Air Force -- are typically required to fulfill two years of active-service duty immediately following graduation. Service-academy athletes have been caught in the middle of policy changes on this matter in recent years. For instance, former Ravens sixth-rounder Keenan Reynolds was able to defer his service after being drafted in 2016, thanks to a policy change under the Obama administration. However, the U.S. Department of Defense rescinded that change a year later, barring athletes -- like former Air Force football players Jalen Robinette and Weston Steelhammer -- from delaying their required two years of service. In 2019, President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper changed the guidelines, re-opening the door for athletes at military academies to delay their active-duty service after graduation in order to play professional sports, pending approval from the defense secretary. Once those players' athletic careers were over, they were required to fulfill their outstanding military obligation or repay the costs of their education.
A few weeks ago, though, it appeared the deferment option might go away immediately. Carter, a possible top-50 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, was just about to play in the fabled Army-Navy game when word surfaced that a small section of the U.S. military's annual budget contained language that would prevent service-academy athletes from deferring their mandatory post-graduation service. It stated, in part: "Agreement by a cadet or midshipman to play professional sport constitutes a breach of agreement to serve as an officer."
That would have applied to all the service-academy football players, but figured to impact Carter -- by far the best NFL prospect at any military school this draft cycle -- the most. Carter's family and Army's athletic department, with strong support from the athletic departments at Navy and Air Force, scrambled to figure out what their options were. The meat of their argument was that the sudden change unfairly hurt upperclassman athletes whose options would be hindered. According to Army's athletic department, service-academy students must "affirm" their commitments prior to the start of Year 3, essentially requiring them to double down on a pledge to the military -- and inherently increasing penalties substantially for athletes who drop out of school early. Carter didn't become an NFL prospect until his breakout, 15.5-sack season in 2021, at which point he had already affirmed his commitment. Declaring early for the NFL draft at that juncture would have carried a stiff financial penalty to repay his education at the academy. Army coaches told NFL.com -- and Carter confirmed -- that several big-name college football programs made overtures to Carter through back channels to try to lure him into the NCAA's transfer portal prior to his senior campaign, but that also would have imposed a hefty financial burden. Ultimately, Carter remained at Army for the 2022 season.
After news broke earlier this month that service-academy athletes could be barred from deferring their post-graduation service, lawmakers heard public outcry on the matter and went to work to change the bill as it was still working its way through Congress. Consequently, new language in the omnibus spending package grandfathered in all athletes enrolled prior to June 1, 2021, to the prior eligibility rules, as detailed on the 1,875th page of the bill that spans more than 4,000 pages. (Going forward, athletes enrolled after that date must fulfill their two years' service immediately following graduation.) The revised bill passed through the Senate and House last week before landing on President Biden's desk for signing.
Now, all that stands between Carter and a shot at the NFL is a waiver being granted from the Department of Defense. Since 2019, that has been considered a mere formality for the handful of NFL prospects from the service academies. But that's also why Carter is such a special case. NFL hopefuls are few and far between at Army, which has produced two draft picks -- both seventh-rounders -- in the common draft era (beginning in 1967). Although Carter's senior season wasn't as statistically dominant as his junior campaign, partially due to midseason injury, he returned to action and helped Army (6-6) win its final three games of the season, including a thrilling overtime victory over Navy. Carter finished his college football career with 20 sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and two blocked kicks.
Carter has accepted an invitation to the Reese's Senior Bowl, which offers him a chance to revive some of the buzz he generated in 2021. NFL scouts also believe that Carter's rare athleticism at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds could make him a potential eye-catcher at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.
Either way, Carter projects to be the Black Knights' highest pick in the common draft era and a dark-horse candidate to be the school's first Round 1 selection since 1947.