CHARLOTTE -- In the eight months that followed a season-ending tear to his anterior cruciate ligament, linebacker Dan Connor looked for indications of progress.
There was a sprint without hesitation. A pain-free run on the treadmill. Finally, during organized team activities, would come the most promising sign of his return to health -- on-field work, complete with sharp cuts and pursuits.
By the final week of summer school, Connor was a linebacker once again -- not a player recovering from knee surgery. Was he thinking about the knee?
"Not at all," he said. "I can cut and do all that stuff. I think the next step is building the muscles around it back to where they were at my peak, and then it will be like nothing was wrong."
At his peak last year, Connor was still adjusting to the NFL, learning what he could as a backup at middle linebacker to Pro Bowler
But it was that duty that saw him suffer the injury that brought his season to an end as swift as it was frustrating.
"That was the first time I'd ever missed that much of the season," he said.
Connor's rehabilitation wouldn't allow him to get back to anything close to full speed until well into the offseason, leaving him consigned to salvaging cerebral lessons from his rookie season.
"I would try to pick up the defense," he said. "I would try to watch the interactions between players and coaches on the field. It gave me a chance to see how everything works without being right in the mix. I saw how Beason makes adjustments. It was nice seeing that from an outsider's perspective."
Nice, but not what he expected out of his rookie season.
"It was hard watching and not being a part of the team," Connor said. "but it motivated me and made me look forward to times like this, when you're back out there and playing again. It's just hard watching when you're on the team."
The observations from a distance are gone now. By the time the Panthers began offseason conditioning in March, Connor was running. Before minicamp began May 1, he was sprinting, barely seven months after being injured.
"Once we started opening it up, it started coming back," Connor said. "It's more getting the strength back in my hamstrings. But the knee feels secure as it's ever been.
"This is what kept me motivated through the season, having to watch and rehab. I didn't miss a day for probably six months straight. It's all for getting back on the field and feeling how you felt when you first got here. I've been looking forward to this.
"It gets better and better each day."
Which is exactly the kind of progress the second-year linebacker hoped to find.