Carolina Panthers

Team likes added value of Penn State linebacker Connor

CHARLOTTE -- Sure, the Carolina Panthers liked the value they found when Dan Connor slipped to the third round of this year's draft.

But they also remember how quickly things can change at his position, which had them thinking he might have been more of a need than was readily apparent.

The Panthers chose the Penn State linebacker -- the Nittany Lions' all-time leading tackler -- even though they didn't have an immediate spot for him. But after watching linebackers drop like flies a year ago, they were going to brace themselves for a repeat this year.

"It's a position that's hard to find once you're in the season, and it's a spot where you see a lot of injuries," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "You never know what spot you're going to have a run on, but with that being such an extremely physical position, you have to have some flexibility there."

The Panthers learned that first-hand last summer.

When Na'il Diggs came up lame and Jon Beason held out for eight days at the start of training camp, it became hard to practice because of the linebacker shortage. This was when Dan Morgan wasn't taking any of the contact work because of his concussion problems the year before, so even a hamstring pull by a reserve (Brandon Jamison) made getting through the day a challenge.

There was a point in camp when they had just six fully functional linebackers, including two rookies and a French exchange student (camp loaner Phillipe Gardent). Then backup/special teamer Terrence Melton went down for the year in August, clearing Beason's spot just in time. The season started and Morgan went down in Week 3, which caused more shuffling of positions. They even tried James Anderson -- who was close to making the roster this year -- in the middle before giving the job to Beason.

That's why Connor was more than just a luxury buy.

The rookie said he's taking most of his work in the middle -- where he's running with the third team behind Beason and Adam Seward. But they also want him peeking at weakside, where he's at best third behind Diggs and free agent pickup Landon Johnson.

"In this system specifically, I'd say the middle because that's what I've been doing so far," Connor said of his most natural spot. "The more I start to get comfortable with the middle, I'm going to try to learn the other ones to make myself as useful as possible.

"I'm trying to do as much as I can handle, try to get it all in at once. Studying the playbook each night to try to get it down more and more. It's an ongoing battle, me versus the playbook."

They think he's smart enough to eventually be productive at middle or weakside, and when they paid for Johnson, part of the reason was they lacked a guy who could play all three after Chris Draft left.

For the time being, that's traffic for Connor to fight through, and he knows much of this year will be spent running down kicks. To his credit, he's not griping about his lot.

"In the long run, I think it's going to be more beneficial," Connor said. "There are guys who have been around forever. And they can give me tips during practice, on how to play, how to pick things up.

"In the long run of my career, I think I'll be thankful to come to a place with so many great linebackers."

Of course, they think he might become one, too. Like Connor, they were a bit surprised when he was there at the 74th overall pick, figuring some pedestrian 40-yard dash times (4.66- and 4.67-second times at his pro day) might have been what sent him plummeting.

"To be honest, I thought it helped me," Connor said. "Because some people thought I'd run slower than that."

But the more the Panthers watched the tape, and the more they thought about the mess they were in at times last year, the 40 times became inconsequential, or at least not anything to make them pass.

"You look at a guy's production, and what you see during the games has to be the first thing," Hurney said. "That's what you have to make a decision on. The other stuff's part of the choice, like a lot of other things are, but it can't be the main factor.

"You look to see if the guy's a football player, because that's what you're drafting him to do."