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Cowboys Free Agency: Is LB Anthony Hitchens A Priority?

Sean Martin

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Cowboys Free Agency: Is LB Anthony Hitchens A Priority?

The frustrating reality when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys' approach in roster building is -- at certain positions -- they seem set on bargain-hunting for quick fixes and players with untapped potential to do the job. For years now, linebacker has been one of those positions, with the Cowboys failing far too many times at adding a true starter next to Sean Lee.

With free agency approaching on the league calendar, the Cowboys will now have a decision to make on one of their most promising linebackers. After four years of solid production at all three LB spots, Anthony Hitchens is set to hit the open market.

Schedule & Game Results Table
Defe Defe Defe Defe Defe
Week Rec Opp 1stD TotYd PassY RushY TO
1 W 1-0 New York Giants 13 233 198 35 1
2 L 1-1 @ Denver Broncos 26 380 202 178 2
3 W 2-1 @ Arizona Cardinals 22 332 283 49
4 L 2-2 Los Angeles Rams 24 412 244 168
5 L 2-3 Green Bay Packers 25 342 182 160 1
6 Bye Week
7 W 3-3 @ San Francisco 49ers 23 290 187 103 3
8 W 4-3 @ Washington Redskins 16 285 236 49 3
9 W 5-3 Kansas City Chiefs 17 323 255 68 1
10 L 5-4 @ Atlanta Falcons 22 336 204 132 1
11 L 5-5 Philadelphia Eagles 17 383 168 215
12 L 5-6 Los Angeles Chargers 25 515 434 81
13 W 6-6 Washington Redskins 15 280 224 56 4
14 W 7-6 @ New York Giants 21 330 228 102 2
15 W 8-6 @ Oakland Raiders 19 293 171 122 1
16 L 8-7 Seattle Seahawks 15 136 60 76
17 W 9-7 @ Philadelphia Eagles 12 219 149 70 2
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/25/2018.

 

Hitchens' contract year did not start off as cleanly as the team hoped, injured against the Oakland Raiders in the preseason. Recovering faster than expected, Hitchens made his 2017 debut against the Green Bay Packers. You can see the improvements in the Cowboys' overall numbers on defense once Hitchens returned to the field.

One thing the Cowboys do have going for them entering 2018 is the status of LB Jaylon Smith. The Cowboys deserve to parade around Jaylon Smith as a draft risk that worked out, and that's exactly what it feels like they'll do.

Relying on Smith and Lee to be the team's primary linebackers, on the field together in Nickel sets, is a solid start for the Cowboys. Anthony Hitchens as depth behind both of these starters, a role he excels in, creates much less of a need at LB in Dallas though.

Anthony Hitchens was a fourth round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The 2018 Draft class features plenty of depth at his position, meaning the Cowboys' could allocate the money Hitchens would warrant elsewhere - replacing him with a cheaper, younger option.

While slightly limited in pass coverage, Hitchens serves an important role as a read-and-react defender for the Cowboys that brings physicality against the run. This is the type of player that Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli loves.

The likes of Kris Richard and Ben Bloom have added say in what the Cowboys' defense will look like moving forward now however. Richard will coordinate the back seven of this defense, as he did brilliantly in Seattle, while Bloom is the Cowboys' new LB Coach.

Anthony Hitchens

Dallas Cowboys LB Anthony Hitchens (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

Just how much they value a quality, starting-caliber LB on this roster will say a lot about the direction the Cowboys want to go in free agency this offseason. While it is understood that they won't be big spenders on outside players, signing their own has become a priority.

Taking this approach in free agency allows freedom come draft day, as the Cowboys can focus on adding talent anywhere on the roster.

Regardless of where Anthony Hitchens is next year, linebacker is a position the Cowboys should be looking to build on, and it may be best if they let Hitchens walk.

Tell us what you think about "Cowboys Free Agency: Is LB Anthony Hitchens A Priority?" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Travis Diggs

    February 25, 2018 at 11:50 am

    I guess yall forgot Sean Lee gets hurt every season and when he gets hurt whos always there, Anthony Hitchens. So to the point of this article, Hitchens is a priority this off season

  2. nick

    February 25, 2018 at 12:19 pm

    Yes I believe they should sign him to a 2-3 yr deal by then we’ll know if jaylon is the player he was in college and both of there contracts will expire around the same time an we can pay the best 1 a big extension, and hopefully draft another starter during those 2-3 yrs. He’s a really good LB and I think he’s a huge priority with the health of Lee always being a problem.

    • Sean Martin

      Sean Martin

      February 25, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      Nick, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. You have a really good idea here with Smith and Hitchens, just wonder if their commitment to Smith has already forced that decision a bit. Or if the FA market for Hitchens will do it for them. I’d love to have him back at the right price.

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A Lot Had to Happen for Amari Cooper to Join the Cowboys

John Williams

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Amari Cooper

Amari Cooper was a game changing player from the moment he showed up at The Star in Frisco, Texas. In the first game against the Tennessee Titans, you could just tell that this was a different kind of player. The Cowboys hadn't had a wide receiver with his mixture of size and skill.

Cooper to me showed off the brilliant route running of Cole Beasley, in a body similar to Dez Bryant. Oh, and with 4.4 speed.

Electric.

But Amari Cooper's presence with the Dallas Cowboys may not have happened in 2018 if any one of a number of dominoes didn't fall during the 2018 offseason and regular season.

Shunned by Sammy

Early in the free agency period, it was reported that the Dallas Cowboys had brought in Sammy Watkins and made him a lucrative offer that would have paid him around $16 million per year, but as Patrik Walker from 247 Sports discussed, he ultimately signed with the Kansas City Chiefs for more guaranteed money.

I recall first the feeling of dread when I heard about the pursuit of Sammy Watkins, immediately followed by relief when I saw that he signed with the Chiefs. I was in the midst of a government mandated internet blackout.

Don't get me wrong, Sammy Watkins is a fine player, but he isn't a $16 million per year player. Aside from his athleticism and size he doesn't really bring much to the table. He was pretty much a younger, and similarly injury prone -- at their respective points in their careers -- as Dez Bryant.

In 2018, Watkins only played in 10 games for the Chiefs and barely passed the 500 yard mark while catching only three touchdowns. Now, he's not the top priority in the Chiefs passing game, but he's not a player that can be relied upon to lead an offense.

Had the Cowboys signed Watkins last offseason, it's highly unlikely that they would have traded a 2019 first round draft pick to add another wide receiver in Amari Cooper.

Dez Bryant Goes Bye-Bye

The next thing that happened that may not have, was the release of long-time Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Dez Bryant. Dez Bryant had been with the team since 2010, when the team made him their first round pick that season. After post really good numbers from 2012-2014, Dez had a drop off in production, mostly due to injuries in the 2015-2017 seasons.

Dez Bryant, a fan favorite, was a player that relied upon his superior athletic ability, physicality, toughness, and ability to get passes in the air that made him special. Injuries to his legs and feet started to rob him of his athletic ability. Combine that with the fact that he and Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott could never really get on the same page when it came to fade routes, traditional or of the back shoulder variety.

Had the Cowboys not made the decision to move on from Bryant, the Cowboys offense would have probably been better the first seven games of the season. They may not have necessitated allocating a first round pick to acquire Cooper and it's possible he gets traded somewhere else or stays in Oakland altogether.

Poor Starts to the Season

The Oakland Raiders went into the 2018 season having made a lot of noise by signing Jon Gruden out of the broadcast booth and trading Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears. After a 1-5 start to their season, the fire sale continued as they put Amari Cooper on the trade block.

The Dallas Cowboys started the season 3-4, but looked much worse on offense than what we could have anticipated. We knew they would take a bit of a step back in the passing game as they were trying to work in new faces, but it was bad for the first seven, and really eight weeks of the season.

The Cowboys went into the season with a plan to use their wide receiver group as a committee to try and fill their needs with several players of varying skill sets. Sounds good in theory, but in practice it was a debacle. Receivers not named Cole Beasley, struggled to get open and the offense was listless through the first two months of the season.

Had either team been better than they were to start the season, the chance of a trade taking place would have been small. Teams like to think they can get by with what they have. Had the Cowboys been 4-3 instead of 3-4, they may have thought they could get by with Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, and Michael Gallup as their lead receivers.

Trade Compensation

It was rumored that prior to the Dallas Cowboys sending their 2019 first round pick to the Oakland Raiders that the Philadelphia Eagles offered a second. The Raiders, who were looking to stock pile picks to rebuild, held out for the first they desired for their former 2x Pro Bowler.

Had the Raiders took the Eagles offer as the best offer on the table at the time, the Cowboys would have missed out on Cooper and likely missed out on the division and the playoffs in 2018. On the flip side, we know how much the Cowboys value their draft picks. We've seen them pass on game changing player who would have cost much less because they value their draft picks and believe in their ability to find difference makers in any round.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The Dallas Cowboys were really fortunate to end up with Amari Cooper. If any of the above things goes differently, it's extremely unlikely that he's wearing a Cowboys uniform in 2018 at all. Now, coming off a 1,000 yard season -- in only 15 games -- and a Pro Bowl appearance, Cooper is set to get paid some big money by the Dallas Cowboys front office. As they get ready to pay Cooper upwards of $16 million a year or more, they should have only one thought on their mind for the good fortune that brought Cooper to Dallas;

Thankfulness. 



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NFL Honors: Leighton Vander Esch Receives 0 Votes for DROY

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Leighton Vander Esch

The Dallas Cowboys front office hit the ball out of the park when they drafted Boise State Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch back in April, 2018. Since then, Vander Esch has earned the starting role that previously belonged to Sean Lee, earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and made the second-team All-Pro. Even for a first round draft pick, the rookie exceeded expectations.

For many, he was a clear candidate for the NFL Honors' Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. However, the voters didn't see him as such.

Around The NFL on Twitter

Defensive Rookie of the Year voting: Darius Leonard - 29 Derwin James - 20 Bradley Chubb -- 1

Three rookies received votes for the award, but the Wolf Hunter wasn't among them. Instead, Indianapolis Colts LB Darius Leonard and Los Angeles Chargers S Derwin James walked away with the vast majority of the votes. For the Denver Broncos, LB Bradley Chubb received only one vote.

This is actually surprising to me. Leighton Vander Esch's season was pretty impressive. His performance on the field week in and week out was dominating. How can you make the second-team All-Pro and get no votes while Bradley Chubb gets one?

Now granted, the competition this year for this award in particular was loaded with notable nominees. After all, Darius Leonard led the NFL in tackles, had seven sacks and forced four fumbles. Being completely honest and unbiased here, I would've voted for Leonard as well. Derwin James managed to translate what he did in college to the field and played many different positions. He even lined up in various spots as a linebacker. For the Chargers, he did it all.

Even still, there's a big argument to make for Vander Esch and I'm surprised no voter did so. His direct competition for the award was undoubtedly Darius Leonard. Although the Colt had the most tackles and the better stats, that's also because he played way more snaps than Vander Esch did. Per Pro Football Reference, Leonard participated in 956 defensive snaps (91.31% of his team's total defensive snaps) while Vander Esch only played in 784 (76.56%). Despite having 172 snaps less to his name, Vander Esch trailed Leonard by only nine solo tackles.

At the end of the day, what matters is that the Dallas Cowboys have one hell of a football player at strong linebacker. Oh, and another great LB to play beside him named Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch may have lost the battle against Leonard for DROY, but it'll be fun to see how both players continue to grow and do great things for their respective football teams.

Tell me what you think about "NFL Honors: Leighton Vander Esch Receives 0 Votes for DROY" in the comments below, or tweet me @MauNFL and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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DeMarcus Lawrence Top Free Agent of 2019 Offseason

John Williams

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DeMarcus Lawrence, Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

We currently sit at 42 days away from the beginning of league wide Free Agency for the NFL. It's one of several opportunities that the Dallas Cowboys will have to upgrade a roster that looks ready to contend for their sixth Lombardi Trophy in 2019. Yesterday, Pro Football Focus released their top 50 free agents for the 2019 offseason and Dallas Cowboys Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence ranks as the guy at the top of the free agent class for this coming offseason. Cowboys Nation shouldn't be surprised by this development.

DeMarcus Lawrence is elite.

Here's what Pro Football Focus had to say on Lawrence:

"The Cowboys asked him to prove it, and Lawrence did just that. His 89.5 overall grade this season ranked seventh among all edge defenders in the NFL. Soon to turn 27, Lawrence is the rare elite edge defender hitting free agency in his prime."

Michael Renner - Pro Football Focus

Player grades are a subjective analysis, but it gives a barometer for how Lawrence is regarded league-wide. Not only is Lawrence viewed as an excellent player by Cowboys analysts, national media respects his game as well.

Lawrence finished the 2018 season with 10.5 sacks, marking the second time in a row that he had more than 10 sacks. In three of his last four seasons, Lawrence has had more than eight sacks for the Dallas Cowboys. He's one of the best, if not the best 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL.

Lawrence forced two fumbles, had his first career interception this season, recovered a fumble, and forced 15 tackles for loss. He finished with 44 stops on the season, which Pro Football Focus defines as "tackles that constitute a "loss" for the offense." Those 44 stops tied him for fourth in the NFL.

DeMarcus Lawrence isn't just an elite pass rusher, he's an elite run defender as well. The way he sets the edge for the Dallas Cowboys defense makes life easier for their two dynamic linebackers in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.

Lawrence is in line to see a very rich contract this offseason that could pay him up to $20 million per year over the next four to five years, and he deserves every penny. He's a leader on the team and brings an energy and intensity throughout the week that galvanizes the rest of the defensive line group to play with high energy and effort.

If the Cowboys front office is unable to get a deal done with Lawrence prior to the deadline to assign the franchise tag on March 5th, then the Cowboys will likely assign their elite pass rusher the franchise tag for a second year in a row. The tag would be a place holder, which will prevent Lawrence from hitting free agency and creating a bidding war for his services, until the two sides could reach an agreement.

In the modern NFL where almost every team is throwing the ball 60-70% of the time, having a pass rusher like DeMarcus Lawrence is a must for a defense. We've seen with past Cowboys teams what the lack of a pass rush can do for your team. It's deflating. The Cowboys will do everything they can to get Lawrence locked up for the rest of his prime.

The only question is, how much will he cost?



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