Starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens will nearly triple his 2017 salary, thanks to a performance-based raise in his contract. However, the Dallas Cowboys may still give his starting job to Jaylon Smith.
As reported by ESPN's Todd Archer, Hitchens had enough playing time over the last three seasons to increase his base salary from $690K to $1.84 million in 2017, the final year of his rookie contract.
This is a provision for players drafted in the third round or later, rewarding those who emerge early as significant contributors for their teams.
Jaylon Smith is an obstacle for Hitchens
The irony for Hitchens is that Jaylon Smith, last year's second-round pick, will threaten his job just after getting this raise. The former Notre Dame standout, who was considered an elite draft prospect prior to a major knee injury, is reportedly making progress and on track to play next year.
The bulk of Anthony Hitchens' playing time has come thanks to problems with other players. Sean Lee missed all of 2014 with an injury and Rolando McClain missed all of 2016 with personal problems, both creating openings for Hitchens to have a larger role than expected. Anthony has performed solidly but has rarely been a standout player.
If Jaylon Smith takes the middle linebacker job as anticipated, Hitchens will likely compete with Damien Wilson for the SAM, or strong side, role on the outside. If Wilson continues developing the way he did this season, though, Hitchens may wind up forced into a versatile bench role.
Downside of Anthony Hitchens' raise
While more money is rarely a bad thing, there is a way that this raise could actually hurt Anthony Hitchens. His base salary jumps to $1.84 million along with roughly $100k in signing bonus. But this raise is not guaranteed, so now Dallas can shave about $1.8 million off their salary cap for the minimal cost of just the bonus money.
Given Hitchens' experience and versatility, plus the fact that Jaylon Smith has yet to prove himself, it's highly unlikely Dallas would make him a cap casualty. Still, it's interesting to consider how this generally good news for Hitchens comes with some increased liability.
While a loss of his role to Jaylon Smith would certainly hurt, especially with free agency coming in 2018, at least Hitchens should be making a lot more money for his trouble.