Connor competing with Carter for starting spot
The free agency process didn't last long for inside linebacker Dan Connor, and a current Dallas Cowboys linebacker played a significant role. The 26-year-old free agent had a phone conversation with his friend and former college teammate Sean Lee on March 14. The following day, Connor became a member of the Cowboys by signing a two-year deal.
"I kind of had a feeling the Cowboys were interested," Connor said last week. "I was down the next day. It kind of went quick."
Connor, who has spent the last four years with the Carolina Panthers, played at Penn State with Lee for three seasons. The two became good friends and Connor doesn't deny that Lee influenced his free agency decision. The Cowboys leading tackler last season also helped Connor ease into his new surroundings.
"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."
Adding Connor was important for a franchise trying to get younger and more productive at the position. Bradie James and Keith Brooking showed their age and inability to produce in Rob Ryan's defensive scheme last season. James, 31, started 13 games but finished with only 44 tackles. Brooking, 36, started three games and recorded 50 tackles.
Bruce Carter is a projected future starter at inside linebacker, but offseason knee surgery forced the 2011 second-round pick to miss the first six games, preventing him from getting much experience lining up next to Lee.
Connor, who started 11 games and totaled 75 tackles last season, should compete against Carter for the starting spot alongside Lee, one of the Cowboys' most valuable defenders and someone Connor called, "the leader of the defense."
But don't assume Connor looks at it as a heated battle for a starting spot.
"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."
Injury has been something that has kept the Cowboys from seeing much from Connor during organized team activities and mini-camp. The 2008 third-round pick had offseason shoulder surgery and was not cleared to participate. However, Connor said if there was a game today, he would be playing.
Even without Connor strapping on his helmet and competing in drills, Jason Hatcher said he knows what the Cowboys are getting because of the person that has vouched for him.
"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."
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."
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett doesn't envision the new scheme being a problem for Connor, either.
"He's been trained well," Garrett said. "He's a very instinctive player. You see him see plays unfold really quickly and get to where he needs to get. I don't think understanding football and understating schemes are an issue with him."
As far as the studying is concerned, Connor said he is as prepared as he can get, but acknowledged that it will be a different story once he gets on the field "and the bullets are flying."
Connor plans to remain at Valley Ranch until training camp begins in late July. His goal is to continue getting comfortable with his new co-workers, work in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik and get acclimated to the Texas summer heat.
"It's hotter than I expected," he said. "Heat's been brutal but everything else has been great. It's an unbelievable team. This is a great group of guys. Great coaching staff. Everything's been smooth. It's something to be excited about. The fans should be real excited about the team they put together here."
Follow Jon Machota on Twitter: @jonmachota