The Dallas Cowboys will see three starter-quality linebackers enter free agency a month from now. Each has shown playmaking ability, and each has question marks. How much cap space are any of them worth when guys like Anthony Hitchens can be had in the fourth round?
The Cowboys front office was ridiculed by draft experts a year ago when they selected Hitchens, a two-year starter at weakside linebacker for the Iowa Hawkeyes. The knock was Dallas overreached for a sixth- or seventh-round prospect.
He was too small. But he didn’t look small in the third quarter of Week 3 at St. Louis. With Dallas down by four and the defense reeling in its own red zone, Hitchens shot the gap on fourth-and-1 from the 15-yard line and popped the 225-pound bowling ball Zac Stacey for a loss.
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He was too slow. But he didn’t look slow in Week 10 when he caught Jacksonville burner Cecil Shorts from behind. What looked like a sure touchdown was held to a 53-yard gain and a first down at the Dallas 35-yard line. On the next snap defensive end George Selvie would force a fumble.
Many of the same expert voices scoffed when Dallas selected future Second Team All Pro center Travis Frederick with the 31st overall pick of the 2013 draft. So come draft day, if you hear the TV genius class snicker at senile old Jerrah, odds are the Cowboys will have found themselves a player.
Hitchens started 11 games and played more than 600 snaps as a rookie in 2014, according to data at ProFootballFocus.com. That wasn’t the idea when Dallas drafted him with the 119th overall pick. The plan was for Hitchens to be a core special teamer and spell Sean Lee at the Mike. We all know how that worked out.
Hitchens role in the defense grew with attrition. The team’s three starters, Rolando McClain at the Mike, Justin Durant at the Will, and Bruce Carter at the Sam, would miss significant time in 2014 due to injuries. To the surprise of many, the fourth-round rookie filled in at each of their positions capably. Head coach Jason Garrett spoke to Hitchens’ position flex midway through the year:
"“He doesn’t look like a fish out of water at any of the spots we’ve asked him to play. And I think more than anything else, it’s just playing more allows him to become more and more comfortable. He’s seeing things and reacting more quickly and pulling the trigger and showing up and making plays. And he’s physical, too. He’s tackling hard, which is obviously a really good trait for a linebacker.”"
The three starters Hitchens spelled in 2014 become unrestricted free agents at 4:00 p.m. March 10th. The Cowboys are unlikely to re-sign all three, and why would they with guys like Hitchens coming out of the college ranks each year? In fact, how different would we view the Cowboys linebacking corps today if DeVonte Holloman, a sixth-round pick who had a promising rookie year in 2013, hadn’t sustained a career-ending neck injury during the 2014 preseason?
McClain is hurt a lot and at 25 has already retired twice, Durant will be on the wrong side of 30 come September, and Carter is an electric playmaker with consistency issues. Know how many times any of them has played a full 16-game season? Once, in 2012, when Durant was with the Detroit Lions. Know how many 100-tackle seasons they have between them? One. Durant. Same year.
Stats aren’t everything, and I like all three of those players. A healthy McClain is a bull against the run, Durant can give the team starter-quality snaps at all three linebacking positions, and Carter is an explosive combination of size and speed with rare playmaking ability.
But the Cowboys need to be careful about allocating cap space to players who can’t get on the field, or who are past their prime playing days, or who disappoint you with a mousy Jekyll after they thrill you with a bruising Hyde. Holloman and Hitchens suggest this Dallas front office can identify young, cheap linebacking talent in the draft. However they choose to address their free agent linebackers, I’m ready to trust it.