The Cowboys don’t have many significant players with expiring contracts in 2017, but one key defender is going to be looking for a new deal. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens, whose rookie contract is coming to an end, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Hitchens has started in 36 of the Cowboys’ 48 regular season games over the last three seasons. His 11 starts as a rookie were unexpected due to injuries with Sean Lee and Rolando McClain, but Anthony was solid and at times even shined with this early workload. He has remained a steady and valuable presence for the defense, playing all three LB positions at times.
Odd Man Out?
Despite his track record and starting in all 16 games last season, Hitchens may wind up on the bench in 2017. The highly-anticipated debut of Jaylon Smith should take up the middle LB spot. Last year’s strong-side LB, Damien Wilson, started to break out in 2016 and should be even better in his third season. And of course, Sean Lee is a fixture on the weak side.
This scenario is hardly ideal for Anthony Hitchens with free agency looming. While he could get a new deal from Dallas to be a versatile primary reserve, he obviously will want a chance to be a starter and earn starter money. Losing plays this season as a backup robs him of opportunities to impress potential new teams.
Obviously, Hitchens becoming a bench player is only an assumption. He could very well beat out Damien Wilson for the SAM role, or have to play one of the other two spots if something bad happens. As it has more than once during his Cowboys career, Anthony’s playing time may come unexpectedly.
As our own Kevin Brady wrote about yesterday, Anthony Hitchens may not be going away quietly. His current job and future employment are on the line with millions of dollars at stake. He should be as motivated as ever in 2017, which can only be of benefit to the Cowboys.
With those 36 starts and other playing time under his belt, Hitchens isn’t unknown to the rest of the NFL. If he does end up on the bench in Dallas, could the Cowboys find a linebacker-needy team that would trade for him?
Given the uncertainty around Jaylon Smith’s health, giving up Hitchens is a risky prospect. He is easily the team’s best second option at middle linebacker. Even if Smith gets through training camp and preseason unscathed, do you really want to drop your best insurance policy at any point in 2017?
If Dallas would even consider trading Hitchens, it wouldn’t be until after preseason. This is often when you see teams trying to move their surplus players for future drafts picks or to fill positions of need. Because Hitchens could be the primary backup at all three LB spots, he wouldn’t get traded until there’s more certainty and fewer opportunities for disaster.
Unfortunately for Hitchens, his versatility might make him too valuable to give up. While the Cowboys would like to get something for him before he walks away in free agency, his 2017 role could still be vital.