The Dallas Cowboys received some positive news on the injury front this weekend, as LB Anthony Hitchens' knee injury suffered against the Raiders was diagnosed as a tibial plateau fracture. The long road ahead for the promising and underappreciated member of Rod Marinelli's defense is no less disappointing, but the now-projected eight week recovery time is easier to handle following initial reports of a season-ending torn ACL.
The “next man up” for the Cowboys without their starting MIKE linebacker though is not Sean Lee, Damien Wilson, or a rushed-to-action Jaylon Smith. Instead, forgotten man Justin Durant has the team confident in their depth at the position without Hitchens – signed by the Cowboys for another season after appearing in 13 games for Dallas last year with 24 tackles and three passes defended.
“Knowing that Hitch is going to be coming back, we feel comfortable with where we are at that position” – Stephen Jones
To hear it from Jerry & Stephen Jones, Cowboys will be hoping Justin Durant can pick up the slack if Hitchens misses time.
— David Helman (@davidhelman_) August 27, 2017
Stephen Jones had this to offer about the state of the Cowboys' LBs, with Hitchens expected back later in the season to hopefully pick up where he's left off with a very strong showing through training camp and the preseason.
On the surface, the Cowboys' sudden confidence in Durant comes off as another brash move that again fails to hide some inefficiency in the construction of the roster at linebacker. There are positives on the depth chart here however – ones that should keep this defense strong without Anthony Hitchens.
Justin Durant won't dominate any games from the MIKE LB position, but he brings experience and steadiness to the position. This will most-importantly allow Sean Lee to remain at his ideal WILL position, while preseason standout Damien Wilson can continue to develop as a SAM.
Of course, the Cowboys' long commitment to Jaylon Smith has actually seen #54 suit up and play in his second professional season, meaning that he can finally be considered a real option to contribute at linebacker. Anthony Hitchens will still be unavailable when needed most for Jaylon to split snaps at MIKE early in the season, but the Cowboys will not overwork Smith to replace Hitchens.
It may not have been noticeable (if at all) during training camp, but the Cowboys have a motivated Justin Durant prepared to once again do his job and assure that the loss of Hitchens – a player many in Cowboys Nation have been trying to replace for years – won't entirely break this team's defense in 2017.
Durant has not appeared in the preseason yet for the Cowboys, but has played all three LB positions at different times for this team from 2013-2014 and again last year. He spent 2015 as a MIKE LB with the Falcons, going through enough struggles to retire briefly following the season.
The likes of Mark Nzeocha and Damien Wilson will likely still get work at middle linebacker to continue easing Durant back into an expanded role defensively, but Durant's readiness to step in and man this position with poise come week one is going to help all ten of the players around him stay with themselves and execute at a high level.