Since the inception of the New York Giants in 1925, the team’s most prolific defenses were usually synonymous with at least one stud in their linebacker core. If the Giants are going to bounce back from last year’s struggles, offseason acquisition Dan Connor is going to need to make his presence known.
In the last decade, the Giants have shifted the emphasis they previously placed on the linebacker position, over to the defensive line. Michael Strahan’s success at defensive end paved the way for the emergence of young prospects like Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
As one juggernaut of a unit, variations of this group gave the Giants an elite pass rush, leading to Super Bowl victories in both 2007 and 2011.
However, last season was nothing short of a lingering defensive nightmare for the Giants. The pass rush fizzled as the defensive line, dubbed the “NASCAR package,” seemed to be stuck at a permanent pit stop. The Giants’ defense finished the year 31st in the NFL in yards per game, and saw their sack total dwindle from 48 in 2011 to 33 in 2012.
In the offseason, general manager Jerry Reese and the Giants’ front office made stopping the run a top priority; their focus was up front. The Giants bolstered their defensive line by signing veteran defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson. They also spent their second-round draft pick on Johnathan Hankins, a defensive tackle out of Ohio State.
The offseason signing that flew under the radar was middle linebacker Dan Connor. Connor was far from a sexy splash in the free agency universe, but the Giants needed to add depth to the position, after choosing to part ways with fan-favorite Chase Blackburn.
Connor, entering his sixth season out of Penn State, was a third-round draft pick for the Carolina Panthers in 2008. At Penn State, Connor was a two-time All-American, and finished his career as the all-time tackle leader in Nittany Lions’ history.
Connor spent four seasons with the Panthers, and had a career-high 75 tackles in 2011 before signing with the Dallas Cowboys last year.
It seemed as though the Giants wanted Mark Herzlich to step into the starting spot after spending two years in a limited role, but Connor eventually took over first-team duties in training camp. Whether it is looked at as an underachievement from Herzlich or an over-achievement from Connor, the Penn State graduate is now easing himself into the starting role.
It seems no one, including the coaching staff, knows exactly what to expect from the linebackers this year. The Giants have toyed with different combinations in the preseason, and will most likely continue to shuffle players around as the season progresses.
Spencer Paysinger, Keith Rivers and Jacquian Williams will all see time in the outside linebacker slots of the 4-3 defense. Out of the three, Rivers is the most experienced, having four years under his belt.
As a veteran, Connor will now be counted on to anchor the linebacker unit. He will need to lead by example if the Giants are going to improve from a year ago.
A signing that initially took a backseat may prove to be one of the more important acquisitions later in the year.
Daniel Brennan covers the New York Giants for Rant Sports. He lives in Westchester, New York and is a graduate of Quinnipiac University.