Connor has starter's mentality

CHARLOTTE - Dan Connor is preparing as if he'll start at middle linebacker when the Panthers open the regular season in less than two weeks.

Connor's mindset has little to do with Jon Beason's injury concerns.

Beason is yet to practice since training camp began July 30 because of a bone bruise in his foot, putting his streak of 64 consecutive starts in doubt. Beason still hopes to be ready for the opener Sept. 11 at Arizona, but if he isn't, Connor will be ready.

"My preparation is always as if I'm going to be the guy," Connor said. "It's the same preparation, but I have gotten a chance to take a lot of reps because Jon has been out. I've got a lot of chances to work with the ones.

"It's obviously a role I had last year, so it's something I'm always prepared for because you never know about injuries."

Connor, coming off an injury-shortened season himself, started the first eight games of 2010 at middle linebacker when the Panthers shifted the linebacking corps around in response to Thomas Davis' knee injury. Beason moved to Davis' spot on the weak side, and Connor played the middle with James Anderson at strongside linebacker.

Connor had 60 tackles – third on the team at the time – when a bone chip in his left hip ended his season.

"Coming off an injury, you're never sure how it's going to go," Connor said. "But everything has felt good."

No team can truly afford to play without a Pro Bowl talent like Beason, but the Panthers are in about as good as shape as a team could be if they're faced with such a situation. Connor was impressive in that role last season, and recent acquisition Omar Gaither started 21 games in the middle in five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"The way Dan Connor has played, the way Gaither has played, the way Thomas Williams has played is very encouraging," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "It gives us three guys that can play the middle linebacker position if Jon is not ready to go."

Connor may have come close to not being among the Panthers' options in the middle. When Carolina traded a draft choice to the Chicago Bears for tight end Greg Olsen in late July, rumors ran rampant at first that the trade included Connor - a rumor that made it to Connor.

"I heard it had been done, but I think it was speculation," Connor said. "It's hard to say with so many rumors that come up. We weren't even in camp yet so I didn't have much communication with anybody, so it was a hectic night. I wasn't sure how it was going to swing."

Even though he's likely to be a backup when all of the Panthers' linebackers are healthy, Connor said he's happy with how it turned out.

"You come to the NFL to play, but I love the situation here. Everything feels comfortable," said Connor, a third-round draft pick in 2008. "Getting drafted by a team that had a 'Mike' already like Jon, I knew it would be a little bit of a grind.

"It's a tough situation - you've got three guys plugged in that are great players - but I like playing here. I like the people, I like the city. It's about finding a role, finding a niche and always being ready in case someone goes down."

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