Training camp is over a month away and we are patiently waiting for the Cowboys to take the field in Oxnard, California. The wait for training camp to start is one of the most difficult periods of time as a football fan. We have witnessed the changes the front office made during the offseason in free agency and the draft, but now we must wait a very long time before we start seeing how these new pieces fit into the puzzle.
One area that the Cowboys' front office decided to heavily invest their resources in was the defense. After dedicating most of their 2011 draft on the offensive side of the football, the Cowboys basically cleaned up their secondary in just one offseason. On paper this secondary looks to be one of the strongest units on the team for the 2012 season, but they also upgraded at another key position on the defense.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan received a lot of new pieces for his defense, so hopefully he is able to work his magic and put a better unit on the field than what we saw down the stretch of the season last year. Let's take a look at an upgrade that the Cowboys made but isn't receiving the same type of buzz the secondary has.
More after the jump....Greybeards Keith Brooking and Bradie James are no longer with the team due to their lack of athletic ability and age. Both are fantastic men and I wish them the best, but it was time to move on and get younger at the position. Last season opposing offenses shredded the middle of our defense and attacked us where we were weak. By getting younger and more athletic at the position, the middle of our defense should become more stout.
During the offseason, the Cowboys went out and signed Dan Connor to a two-year, $6.5 million deal. This was a move I applauded the front office for because not only did they get a starting caliber linebacker, but they also got someone with great pedigree and character.
Connor was an All-American linebacker for Penn State, a school known for producing great linebackers. After a successful college career the Carolina Panthers selected him in the third-round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He has suffered a variety of injuries and has had trouble staying on the field, but when healthy Connor is a very good football player.
Fellow Penn State alum Sean Lee played a role in the recruiting for Connor. The two have remained close since college and Connor talked about spending time with Lee during his visit with the Cowboys this offseason.
"When I was here on my visits I went over to his house, hung out a little bit," Connor said. "That was big. That was big in knowing the defense. When you feel comfortable with a guy that knows it inside and out that’s going to be a huge advantage."
Chemistry plays a large role in the success of a football team, so it's great knowing that Connor and Lee are very close with each other. The communication between the inside linebackers is very important, especially in the type of complex scheme Rob Ryan runs where there must be constant communication between the players.
One of the biggest position battles this summer will be for the starting linebacker next to Sean Lee. Recently Connor discussed the battle he will face and the importance of having depth at the inside linebacker position.
"There’s always competition," Connor said. "No matter what they say or how good the player is, there’s somebody who’s going to be trying to get there, so this is just like any other year."
"Whoever gets out there, that’s great. But any team I’ve been on, it’s hard to get through the season with just the starting linebackers. You need guys who can come in and play, if injury happens or even just rotational, give a guy a break or give Sean a breather here and there. It’s never been a problem having too many good ‘backers."
We should really expect to see a great battle this summer between Connor and Bruce Carter. While Connor has the experience, Carter has amazing athleticism. Each offer the defense something different and they can be rotated in and out depending on the situation. I believe that we will see Connor used on running situations and Carter on passing situations. Both are very good athletes who can defend the pass, but Connor looks more like of the "thumper" type of linebacker.
John Machota of the Dallas Morning News points out that Connor has played in different systems during his time in Carolina and how Connor is better suited to play that "thumper" role.
Playing in Ryan’s aggressive 3-4 defensive scheme will be an adjustment for Connor. But that’s nothing new. Connor played in three different schemes with the Panthers, lining up as the middle ‘backer. But according to Connor, his style, which is highlighted by his run-stuffing ability, is better suited for a scheme with four linebackers.
"You can only run so many coverages," he said. "It’s all the same stuff. So, just kind of getting the names down, what name is what, that’s pretty much it. Once you get that down, you’re good."
Defensive end Jason Hatcher has been very vocal this offseason. Hatcher talked about the addition of Connor and how he will be a great piece for the defense.
"He’s a Rob (Ryan) guy, a ball player, a hard worker," Hatcher said. "I think he’s going to help us out a lot. Coach Rob spoke highly of him. (Ryan’s) been around the game for a long time, so when he respects a guy, you got to respect him."
Jason Garrett preaches the "RKG" mentality and Connor is a carbon copy of what Garrett is looking for. He is a hard worker who will put in the effort in practice, but he is also a very good athlete that has a great understanding for the game of football. Garrett isn't worried about Connor having trouble picking up this defense and believes that Connor will pick it up rather quickly.
"He’s a very instinctive player," Garrett said. "You see him see things unfold very quickly and get where he needs to get. I don’t think understanding football and understanding schemes are an issue with him. He’s been banged up a little bit. The biggest issue is he hasn’t really practiced football with us."
Connor also talked about spending a lot of time in the film room and he has been working out with strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik. Players who spend a lot time in the film room usually have a better grasp of what happens on the football field. I believe that every great player spends hours in that room breaking down and analyzing tape.
"That’s pretty much all I can do now – work out and study," he said. "So I continued with the offseason program, with the runs with Coach Woicik and the lifts with him. Like I said, I have more time so I can do more than the guys practicing. Pretty much studying the rest of the day. Staying up late, trying to get that defense, feel comfortable with it as quickly as I can."
So what did Rob Ryan have to say about his new linebacker? It looks like Ryan believes he inherited a good football player, and I have to agree with our eccentric defensive coordinator.
"Dan Connor is a damn good football player," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "He’s going to find a role in here, too. Whether it’s starting or playing, it doesn’t matter to me. We’re going to play our best players. We’re in a fortunate situation to have three damn good players there."
Wade Phillips was more reluctant to play Sean Lee than Ryan was, but Ryan unleashed Lee last season and he grew into one of our most consistent players on the team. The issue was the linebacker next to Lee, which unfortunately was a disaster throughout the entire season. The Cowboys have the best secondary they have had in years, but they also have the best linebacking core they have had in a very long time.
Whoever wins the starting job should be a definite upgrade over what we had last year. Whether it's Connor or Carter, we are going to see a huge improvement at the linebacker position this year. I know I am excited about this defense, and I cannot wait to see the battle for the starting linebacker next to Sean Lee. It may not have been a very popular signing around the NFL, but Dan Connor was a huge addition for the Dallas Cowboys.