New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is entering the final year of his contract in 2013, and his coaching future is heavily dependent upon fielding a much improved defensive unit this season.
In a make-or-break year, after his defense has surrendered 6,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons, Fewell will field a defense featuring a new middle linebacker.
Chase Blackburn, the Giants' starting middle linebacker in 2012, is now a Carolina Panther, which forces Fewell to move on without his radio-wearing on-field extension of the defensive coaching staff. To replace the former Super Bowl hero, Fewell has an unproven cast of hopefuls to choose from.
In March, four days into the new NFL year, the Giants signed Dan Connor to play middle linebacker. Connor played four seasons with the Panthers before spending last year in Dallas. Although Connor ended up a cap casualty with the Cowboys, many believe the 'backer can crack the starting lineup with Big Blue.
“It’s all about being technique-perfect and being able to call the defense, make the checks and be spot on,” Connor told Dan Salamone of Giants.com. “As a new guy in the locker room, that’s how I’m going to earn respect—by knowing not only my position but everyone else’s position. So studying is big for me right now, being vocal on the field, and basically earn the respect of guys who I met a couple weeks ago.”
Connor, 27, has 56 NFL games under his belt and 27 games worth of starting experience. A graduate of Penn State (also known as Linebacker U), Connor was originally a third-round draft pick (No. 74 overall) in the 2008 NFL Draft.
The former Nittany Lion hasn't made many impact plays at the professional level, though; Connor has just one sack, one forced fumble and no interceptions in five seasons of service.
Despite Connor's pedigree, former undrafted free agent linebacker and cancer survivor Mark Herzlich still may have the upper hand in the battle for the starting job. Herzlich is entering his third season with the Giants after backing up Blackburn for most of 2012. The Boston College product's exposure will increase with Blackburn out of the picture.
Herzlich looked promising as a rookie in 2011. He earned starts in Weeks 10 and 11 versus Philadelphia and New Orleans, respectively, but an ankle injury robbed him of the final five games of the regular season, as well as the subsequent Super Bowl run. The injury directly led to the Giants reunion with Blackburn.
Last summer, Blackburn was rewarded for his tremendous contributions in the playoffs with a new one-year contract, but Herzlich was given a fair shot in training camp to assume his starting duties. Blackburn defended his starting role in 2012, and Herzlich was relegated to a backup job, earning just two spot starts.
"Let the chips fall where they may," Herzlich told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York last August, in reference to the positional battle between he and Blackburn. It will be interesting to see if Herzlich takes a more active approach in fending off Connor.
Although he lacked elite athleticism, Blackburn was viewed as the toughest player to take out of the game because of his leadership and comprehension of Fewell's defensive scheme. Herzlich now has a full season of understudy experience behind Blackburn, which is a definite advantage over Connor, who is going into training camp cold.
Connor will need to catch on quickly in order for this competition to heat up.
While the battle between Connor and Herzlich takes place beneath the spotlight, another former undrafted free agent, Jake Muassau, will play the role of dark horse. The former Georgia State (FCS) linebacker spent the 2012 season on the Giants' practice squad after impressing the New York coaching staff during last summer's OTAs and training camp.
Muasau has an outside chance of taking both Connor and Herzlich by surprise.
Fewell's NFL future is on the line, but picking the right player to man the middle of his defense in 2013 will help him extend it. Connor, Herzlich and even Muasau appear to be in the mix early on, and the possibilities don't end there. Fewell—the inventor of the NASCAR package—is an innovator, so he could even create a new base defense if a traditional Mike does not flesh itself out in camp.
However, assuming he doesn't make any radical changes to the scheme, Fewell will be faced with a tough decision this summer: who should be the Giants' starting middle linebacker?