IRVING, Texas -Dan Connor knew when he signed with the Cowboys this offseason that a battle for a starting job awaited him. He also knew he was likely to start in a bit of a hole.
Connor sat out the entirety of summer practices – 11 Organized Team Activities and minicamp sessions – to rest the shoulder he had surgically repaired before signing with the team in March. While Connor focused on getting himself in shape and trying to pick up the new defense, he had a front-row view of second-year inside linebacker Bruce Carter, his primary competition to start next to Sean Lee and one of the standouts of the offseason.
Rather than worry about falling behind to the Cowboys' 2011 second-round pick, Connor tried to look at the bright side of those off days.
"It gives me more time to study," Connor said at the conclusion of minicamp. "That's pretty much all I can do now, just work out and study. I continued with the offseason program, the workouts run with Coach (Mike) Woicik, the lifts with him. Obviously I've had more time, so I can do more with him than the guys practicing. And then I've pretty much been studying the rest of the day and at night, trying to get down the defense and feel comfortable with it, at least as much as I can."
Though Connor hasn't had the chance to practice at full speed in Rob Ryan's defense, he took part in walkthroughs all summer, and the club believes he won't have any trouble catching up to speed after he works into the action at training camp. Lee, a college teammate at Penn State, knows Connor won't be left behind.
"Dan can pick up a defense like that," Lee said. "Dan is extremely smart. He's got unbelievable instincts, so I'm anticipating, when he comes in, he'll pick it up pretty quick. I don't think that'll be an issue."
A four-year veteran who started 19 games with the Panthers over the past two years, Connor is used to change.
"Defense is a language," Connor said. "I've been in three different systems already in Carolina. This is a fourth system, and you can only run so many different coverages. It's all the same stuff. Just kind of getting the names down – what means what – is pretty much it. Once you get that down, you're good."
While Carter is regarded as the more athletic of the two starting candidates, Connor's savvy and experience could allow him to get to the ball even faster in some instances. A solid run defender, it's entirely possible that Connor could be the Cowboys' choice to play on first and second down, with Carter substituting in when a passing play is more likely.
And no matter who wins the starting job, both players will play. At one of the most physical, demanding positions on the field, depth is a key.
"We're going to play the best players we got," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "Dan Connor is a damn good football player. He's going to find a role in here, too. Whether it's starting or playing, it doesn't matter to me. We're going to play our best players. We're in a fortunate situation to have three damn good players there."