Carolina made a bold decision in the offseason to move Jon Beason, one of the league’s more impressive young MLBs, to the weakside, so they could play Dan Connor in the middle.
The call was risky, and it was much derided, but Connor is currently sitting as our No. 3 ILB — one spot above Ray Lewis. Anybody see that coming besides John Fox?
A look at Connor’s career arc:
The Panthers are a pretty poor football team, but their front seven features some very good performers.
In addition to Connor, the other two members of this 4-3 linebacker corps are firmly lodged in the top 10 of our 4-3 OLB rankings. James Anderson (first) and Beason (eighth), along with DE Charles Johnson, have teamed with Connor to give the Panthers a bright spot in an otherwise wretched season.
Connor has actually been our top-ranked ILB for much of the season, suffering a slight dip in form against the 49ers — largely in coverage — but he has had a few excellent games, and has graded well against the run as well as providing some pressure as a blitzer. He isn’t a complete linebacker yet, coming out in the five- and six-DB packages as Beason shifts over to MLB, and is only on the field for half the plays. But for what he does, he’s doing it extremely well.
This type of play is quite a leap for a guy who barely saw the field last year (78 snaps), playing behind the very average Na’il Diggs. Perhaps Connor wasn’t quite recovered from the ACL injury he suffered early in his rookie season of 2008 — healthy in training camp, the Panthers cut Diggs loose and went with the third-year pro from Penn State.
Beason certainly has the measurables that make people sit up and take notice, and he can fly around the field making plays, but Connor has something else about him: fundamentally sound play. When you cut down all the Xs and Os, football remains a simple game at heart: blocking and tackling. Connor makes tackles and avoids blocks, and he comes downhill in a hurry. He has missed just a single tackle so far this season, and has routinely made plays by attacking holes and blowing up running lanes.
It’s often easy when talking about linebackers to just mention the tackle count (Connor has an unspectacular 31 solos by our count, fewer than KC’s Jovan Belcher in a similar number of snaps), but there are several reasons why that just isn’t a valid way of doing things.
Firstly, the official tackle counts are often woefully inaccurate. We take a lot of pride in our tackle numbers, because they are done retrospectively, after the fact, with the benefit of as many replays as it takes to get it right. You won’t find guys who fall into a pile late getting credit for an assist in our numbers like you will for some official scorers. We’ve even seen players that are sitting on the bench being given credit for a tackle (presumably an error by the scorers rather than some kind of long-distance intimidation thing). The bottom line is, when you’re comparing two players with tackle counts alone you can’t trust that those tackle counts are accurate, or even close to the genuine figure.
Also, tackles are often simply a product of position and opposition. It’s making stops and avoiding missed tackles that matters most, and Connor is shining there. He’s only missed one tackle all year.
Connor grades well so far this year, as we have seen, but he also just looks like a linebacker — he attacks holes and doesn’t slow when he gets to contact like many linebackers do. He runs through it.
He has recorded a lone sack on the season, but he has also knocked down the passer another three times, and recorded five further pressures, all from just 24 blitzes, meaning one in every 2.7 blitzes is producing pressure on the passer.
Last season the Carolina Panthers graded out No. 25 defending the run. This season, with all three linebackers playing well, they are grading No. 12, ahead of teams like the New England Patriots that basically play run-stuffing nose tackles all across the front. Carolina may have a lot of problems on the roster, but they seem to have found something in the play of Connor and the balance he gives their linebackers.
The play of its linebacker corps gives Carolina an interesting decision to make when Thomas Davis returns from injury. Davis was always seen as a big-time talent, but in truth he was a very underwhelming player until the 2009 season (before injuring his ACL for the first time). Davis, as a converted college safety, naturally was always strong in coverage. In 2008 he was our sixth-ranked 4-3 OLB in terms of coverage alone, but his overall ranking plummeted to 25th because of his consistently weak play against the run.
But something happened to Davis in 2009. The light went on and he became a complete linebacker, and a total force in all facets of the game. He finished the season as our seventh-ranked 4-3 OLB, despite playing more than 600 fewer snaps than a season-long starter like Brian Cushing (second overall).
ACL injuries at their best are not easy to come back from, especially for linebackers who rely on being explosive at the point of attack and put a lot of strain on their bodies dealing with heavy blockers and swift ball carriers. Chad Greenway took more than a season to get going after injuring his as a rookie, and Davis has the added challenge of trying to overcome back-to-back ACL tears.
The emergence of Connor at MLB and the play of Anderson and Beason beside him make it very hard for the Panthers to assume Davis can return to the form he only really showed for half a season in 2009. And with a lost season at hand, it seems they’d be even more likely to develop Connor more and let Davis heal.