Overshadowed by the additions of defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and tight end Brandon Myers, perhaps the most underrated and significant addition of the offseason so far is the signing of middle linebacker Dan Connor.
Never really prioritized by Giants GM Jerry Reese, the linebacker position as a whole was not very good in 2012. Weakside linebacker Michael Boley, who was a cap casualty, was a liability against the run and in pass coverage and was subsequently weeded out of his starting role at the end of the season. Keith Rivers and Jacquian Williams both missed multiple games due to injury. However, the biggest liability for the Giants came from the middle linebacker position.
While Mark Herzlich got some opportunities there, veteran Chase Blackburn took the majority of snaps at the position. Blackburn is many things: a nice guy, a solid special teams player, and an adequate backup. However he is not a starting linebacker by any measure and failed miserably in that role in 2012. Blackburn graded out at -10.9 overall according to PFF. He had a nightmarish -7.1 grade against the run and allowed 13.8 yards per reception in coverage. He was one of the main culprits for a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in both run (25th) and pass (31st) defense.
At a season-ending press conference, Reese said “I do think we have to have better linebacker play moving forward.” This offseason, the Giants targeted players like Jasper Brinkley and Rey Maualuga, before settling on Dan Connor, who was released by the Dallas Cowboys in a cost cutting move. Connor, who got a 1 year, veteran minimum contract, is a significantly better player than either Brinkley or Maualuga and is a major upgrade over Blackburn.
Connor, 28, was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. In part because of an ACL tear in 2008, Connor was a reserve for his first two seasons before taking over as their 4-3 MLB in 2010. He flourished before going down to injury in 2010. Connor wasn’t quite as good in 2011, but he was still a very effective run stopper and not a total liability in coverage. He signed with the Cowboys last season and did not adjust well to their 3-4 scheme, leading to his release.
Ideally, the Giants would have targeted a linebacker who could play all three downs. However, that was out of their price range and in the Giants scheme, they typically go to a nickel defense on 3rd down. Connor profiles very similarly to a former Giants MLB…Jonathon Goff. In his only season as a starter in 2010, Goff was a monster against the run, leading the way for a Giants run defense that ranked 13th in the league in yards per carry (4.2) and 8th in yards per game (101.3). While that may not seem accurate, given that one of the lasting images from the season was Michael Vick running untouched 40 yards down the sideline, it’s important to remember that the same defense held Arian Foster to 11 carries for 25 yards and Adrian Peterson to 14 carries for 26 yards.
In a division that features Alfred Morris, DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown along with Robert Griffin III and Vick, having players that can actually stop the run is imperative. Barring injury, Connor will help lead the Giants to take a sizable improvement in their defensive play in 2013.