Dan Connor may be replacing Chase Blackburn but that doesn't mean he is assured the starting middle linebacker job.
On the surface, it appears the answer to this question should be yes.
Unrestricted free agent Chase Blackburn, the starter last season at middle linebacker, is all but gone after the Giants only showed lukewarm interest in retaining him. Connor is a five-year veteran in the NFL with 27 career starts, including eight in 2012 as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
If New York lets its top middle linebacker walk and then signs a starting-caliber middle linebacker within the first week of free agency, it stands to reason that he will be the starter.
Well, this situation may not be as clear-cut as it seems at first glance.
To begin with, Connor’s contract does not scream guaranteed starter. He signed a one-year deal with Big Blue for only $715,000. The team barely has anything invested in him, so if he has a bad training camp, it is not inconceivable that he will lose his starting job before he even has it.
Also, while Connor has shown flashes that he can be a solid middle linebacker, his NFL resume is spotty at best. He has only played in 16 games once in his career and is already on his third team. He is considered strong against the run yet put up a minus-4.0 Pro Football Focus rating (subscription required) in this area for the 2012 season.
In terms of making impact plays, Connor comes up short here as well. He has never intercepted a pass in the NFL and has only one sack and one forced fumble to his credit.
As a point of comparison, Blackburn had five forced fumbles, three sacks and one INT just last season. He was a terrible middle linebacker otherwise in 2012, as witnessed by his minus-10.9 PFF rating (Connor had a minus-3.6 rating), but at least he made big plays that somewhat offset his deficiencies.
Who would anchor New York’s linebacking corps then if Connor were not up to the challenge?
The only player on the roster right now with a chance is Mark Herzlich. The undrafted free agent out of Boston College is entering his third NFL season. He was a highly touted prospect through his first three years of college but sadly was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in 2009. After missing an entire season, he heroically came back in 2010 to play his senior season.
Herzlich was considered a sure-fire first-round pick before being stricken with cancer. Battling for his life, however, against a deadly disease has clearly sapped some of his playing ability. He is not the same physical, imposing athlete that he was prior to falling ill, and it is a big reason why no NFL team was willing to use a draft pick on him.
To his credit, he has done well to stick on an NFL roster and start three games in his career, two at middle linebacker. Unfortunately, those starts have not gone well, as noted in the chart below:
|Game||Postion||PFF Rating: Overall/vs. Run||Tackles||Opponent Rushing Yds. Allowed|
|2012 - at Baltimore||SLB||-1.2/-2.0||7||224 yds.|
|2012 - vs. Pittsburgh||MLB||-2.7/-1.0||8||158 yds.|
|2011 - vs. Philadelphia||MLB||-2.0/-1.3||4||136 yds.|
The rushing yards allowed obviously do not all fall on Herzlich's shoulders, but when an opponent has a good day on the ground, poor play by the linebackers are usually a big reason why.
Herzlich's inability to slow down the run was especially evident in the Pittsburgh Steelers game. Isaac Redman, the main halfback for Pittsburgh that day, had 69 yards on only seven carries up the middle, an average of nearly 10 yards per carry.
Who will be the Giants starting middle linebacker for a majority of the 2013 season?
Despite his lack of success in the limited starts he's had, Herzlich will still get a chance to compete for the starting job. Connor is simply not good enough or paid enough to be entrenched as a starter.
Also, Herzlich is two years younger than Connor (the former will be 26 in September while the latter turns 28 in November) and has less NFL experience. As he continues to mature and learn, there may be a thought process within the organization that he could grow into a good middle linebacker.
Don't be surprised, though, if neither player gets the nod. The Giants will likely grab a linebacker in the early rounds of April's draft. If an inside linebacker, like Georgia's Alec Ogletree, LSU's Kevin Minter or Kansas State's Arthur Brown, is selected, they very well could overtake both Connor and Herzlich in training camp or early in the season.
Connor was a smart signing, at a very reasonable price, but the starter at middle linebacker is as much a mystery today as it was before last weekend.