Anthony Hitchens: Next Man Up for the Dallas Cowboys
Rolando McClain being handed a ten game ban for violating the NFL’s drug policy could well be described as one of the least surprising stories of the year.
Rolling one year, incentive laden deals were a clear indication that the Dallas Cowboys knew having McClain around was a risk. A few minor bumps aside, the risk had been outweighed by the reward. But the scales have tilted, and now the team will need someone else to step into the maverick character role in the Cowboys’ defense.
Look at the linebacker statistics for 2015 and it’s headlined by Sean Lee and Rolando. Most tackles, interceptions and defended passes all led by the pair. And while Lee was sidelined in 2014, McClain dominated in defense.
Spending a second round draft pick on a linebacker on reflection would sound like a genial move by the Cowboys staff. But Jaylon Smith will be out for all of the forthcoming season. Instead the Cowboys will need some of their more perennial players like Andrew Gachkar and Kyle Wilber to be that next man up. For me, that man is Anthony Hitchens.
Selected by the Cowboys in the 4th round of the 2014 draft, Anthony Hitchens continues to surpass expectations.
It was a season ending injury to Sean Lee that thrust Hitchens onto the field so often in his rookie year. Starting 11 games he had 66 tackles, an interception and 5 defended passes. A healthy Lee saw Hitchens game time and production diminish last season, yet he was on the field for 546 snaps and made 39 tackles and 2 sacks.
Finishing 3rd in linebacker tackles for 2015 and 2nd in 2014, his hustle and bustle approach is evident. He’s been handed the tweener tag, as physically he doesn’t compare to McClain or the ideal middle linebacker pro.
McClain has 4 inches and 30 pounds on Hitchens. But 105 tackles, an interception, 6 defended passes, a forced fumble and 2 sacks in his opening 2 years in the league is solid production. He knows the system, he plays hard and perhaps more importantly he plays hurt.
"“Anthony Hitchens is a guy the Cowboys have been able to depend on at all three linebacker spots for the last two years. In 2015 he started the first four games at middle linebacker during McClain’s previous suspension, and while he’s a bit undersized at 235 pounds, adding Cedric Thornton to the defensive line should help protect him up front.” – Rob Phillips, DallasCowboys.com"
Hitchens has to be considered the favourite right now to replace Rolando. He’s done so before and compared to the other linebackers on the roster is the only one who has had significant playing time in this team.
According to the Dallas Morning News, it’s Andrew Gachkar who took the majority of first team reps at OTA’s. With McClain not in attendance it obviously would’ve given the staff time to work players into that middle linebacker spot.
Gachkar though had just one start in his first year as a Cowboy, and he was never considered a starter in his four years in San Diego. More a special teams’ player, but could certainly give the coaching staff a tougher choice.
Ultimately, Anthony Hitchens is not Sean Lee or Rolando McClain. He’s not that talented, but I’d consider him more than a serviceable back. Some considered his second year as a regression, but that’s a little harsh.
He has without doubt had more game time than the Cowboys would’ve expected when they drafted him. His learning has been done under the bright lights of AT&T on a Sunday rather than a slow and steady diet of odd snaps here and there.
"“Hitchens is a nice player, but I’ve seen him have a rough time taking the right angles. He’s still young. He’ll be in the league for a while. But not every LB can start for 8-9 years. He’s just not that guy. Nice player, though. Can help you in a pinch.” – Matt Mosely, Dallas Morning News"
Next: Cowboys defensive suspensions and their effects on the team
Thanks to Rolando McClain the Cowboys are certainly in a pinch. The staff are going to need to wrap up Sean Lee in cotton wool and hope the ferocious side of Hitchens returns. Next man up, again.