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How Will the Loss of Anthony Hitchens Impact the Cowboys’ Season?

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- Anthony Hitchens, #59
AP Photo/Scott Boehm

Last season, the Dallas Cowboys defense was pretty impressive despite the uninspiring regular season record of 9-7. The unit may have seemed devoid of big playmakers, only scoring one touchdown and making just 10 interceptions, but they did well to stifle teams.

Ranking as the eighth-best in the NFL for net yards allowed per game at 318.1, 11th in net passing yards allowed per game at 214.1, and eighth in net rushing yards allowed per game at 104, the Cowboys defense was hard to conquer.

However, a big piece of that defensive effort was linebacker Anthony Hitchens.

Still only 25 years old, Hitchens put up strong numbers year after year and put up a career-best 84 combined tackles – a number only Sean Lee bested on the Cowboys roster – despite missing four games. The 6’0’’ 235 lbs linebacker ran out of contract over the summer, but the Cowboys didn’t really stand a chance of re-signing him.

Playing Free Agency

Sean's Scout: Linebacker Joe Thomas Brings Speed, Range to Dallas Cowboys Defense 1

Source: Patrik Walker, via Twitter

These days, teams pay good players great player money in the first phase of NFL free agency. With little wriggle room between them and the cap, the Cowboys were unlikely to match the other offers coming in for Hitchens.

The fifth-year linebacker eventually signed with the Kansas City Chiefs on a huge deal which some see as wildly overpriced. Hitchens gets a $14-million signing bonus as well as a fully guaranteed $21.5 million over the first two years of the deal.

Having been all but dormant in the early stages of free agency for some years now, the Dallas Cowboys were expected to try to patch the Anthony Hitchens-sized hole in their defense by signing a decent player. But, instead, the Cowboys opted to sign Joe Thomas. With eight starts over three years with the Green Bay Packers, the move wasn’t exactly inspiring.

Said to be a better version of Kyle Wilber – who was also lost in free agency – Thomas likely isn’t Hitchens’ replacement.

However, the Cowboys have long seen free agency as a way to complement their moves in the draft. The Cowboys like to pick and build their own players rather than bring in others.

That said, if they want to challenge for the NFC East and have a strong showing in the playoffs, they’ll need to bring in a big playmaker at linebacker.

As it stands, the Cowboys are a fair bit back in betting online for the NFC Conference at +900, but some shrewd free agency signings and a playmaker in the early rounds of the draft could change all of that. Replacing the productivity of Anthony Hitchens is a must if they are to build on last season.

On-Campus and Looking to the NFL Draft

In Season For Youth, Cowboys Must Make Tough Decision On Jaylon Smith 1

Source: Blue Star Brasil, via Twitter

Right now, Jaylon Smith seems to be the answer to the loss of Hitchens, but he’s still got some way to come before he’s at the level the Cowboys need. He continues to suffer from nerve damage in his foot following a knee injury sustained in his last game for Notre Dame, but it's said to be getting better continually. He has a very strong work ethic and can push for a starting spot, but he’s still somewhat of an unknown.

As the Cowboys have been looking at offensive tackles, guards, and wide receivers in the second phase of free agency, they may already be planning to fill their linebacker hole in the draft.

Picking at #19 overall this year, a stroke of luck may have placed an incredibly talented linebacker in the Cowboys’ lap.

Roquan Smith, standing 6’1’’ and 236 lbs, is a formidable inside linebacker and considered to be one of the very best of the class. However, he sustained a hamstring injury during the NFL scouting combine, which could see him drop just outside of the top 15 – into Dallas’ catch zone.

The Dallas Cowboys look set to fill the void left by Anthony Hitchens with a playmaker in the early rounds of the NFL draft. If they don't, however, it doesn’t look likely that the Cowboys will be as formidable on defense, nor will they properly challenge for the division.



This is the General Staff account for Inside The Star, a blog for Dallas Cowboys news, scores, schedule, rumors, and analysis. We are the official home for @CowboysNation on Twitter. Follow us today for new content updates straight from our timeline. To learn more about our staff, please visit our Staff listing.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Will

    March 30, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    I like the depth at LB in this class. I’d be ok with one of the big names, Smith and Vander Esch are both safe picks imo. I’d be happier to see a guy Shaq Griffen later, then a lottery ticket like Nick DeLuca late

  2. Tommy Davis

    March 30, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    You are vastly underrating Jaylon Smith, what he did last year while on the mend from his injury is just short of amazing, he, not Hitchens, was second on the team with 99 tackles. He steadily improved in what was really his rookie year on the field. The Cowboys played him extensively at middle linebacker when his natural position is outside linebacker. Injury wise he was at about 70% last year and now he says he’s at about 95%. With a year under his belt and the drop foot continuing to disappear, the sky is the limit for him. As far as adding another linebacker, Alabama’s Rashaan Evans is the best middle Linebacker in this draft class. Georgia’s Roshon Smith is an outside linebacker and his best attribute is his speed, he lacks the ferocity of Rashaan Evans who has great speed and is a ferocious hitter.

    • Reynaldo Laporte

      March 31, 2018 at 10:32 am

      I like Jaylon but a lot of those tackles were him hitting guys already hitting the second level he wasn’t stopping guys in hole.

      I’m not worried about him because I know he’ll get there Sean on the other hand is a liability as he is great. He reminds me of a LB version of Bob Sanders

  3. Tommy Davis

    March 30, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    I meant Roquan Smith, not Roshon Smith in my earlier post.

  4. Chuck Wright

    March 30, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    Need at least 2-3 LBs this offseason in addition to Thomas. . .Dallas been doing well identifying LB talent, hope this trend continues

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Dallas Cowboys

Deep Dive into the Dallas Cowboys 2019 Salary Cap

John Williams

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Sean's Scout: Cowboys Blitzes Keep Giants Play Makers in Check

The Dallas Cowboys are heading into free agency, which opens March 13th, in really good shape. The Cowboys will be able to be aggressive in the free agent market if they want to. They have the 10th most cap space in the NFL. It could make for a fun free agency period for the front office and Cowboys Nation, however, we know how this team has felt about spending on outside free agents since being burned by the Brandon Carr signing.

In years past, they’ve opted to bargain shop. Last year was a departure from the norm though, as they chased the mythical unicorn that is Sammy Watkins last offseason.

Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. 

They haven’t generally been a team that chased big-time free agents, though this could be the season that all changes with several free agent safeties that could be immediate upgrades.

We know they’re going to spend a lot of money on their own with Demarcus Lawrence coming free and Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dak Prescott looking for contract extensions, but they’re could Ben opportunities to bring in a star from another player to come where The Star.

I hope Jerry Jones has his signing hand ready, it’s going to be putting in a lot of work over the next couple of months.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve had people on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Google+, MySpace, AOL Chatrooms, and via USPS correspondence express concern about whether the Dallas Cowboys will be able to afford all their guys and chase free agents.

Not to worry Cowboys fan, with a little salary cap and contract gymnastics, the sky’s the limit.

Let’s take a look.

Current Cap Space

According to OverTheCap.com, the 2019 Salary Cap is estimated to be around $190 million. After the release of Terrance Williams, the Dallas Cowboys are expected to have nearly $48 million in cap space available to them when free agency opens on March 13th.

When you look at that number by itself, it doesn’t look like a lot with big money contracts coming to DeMarcus Lawrence, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Byron Jones. Remember, though, the salary cap may be a fixed number, but contracts are pliable, meaning the team can do several things to create cap space through releases, how they structure new contracts, and restructures.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, the Dallas Cowboys will have the money they need to sign the players they want to sign.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense? 2

Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee

Likely Releases

Sean Lee, Linebacker

Age and injury catch up to everyone and this is where we are with All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee who will be turning 33 in July. Lee’s career has just been unlucky from the time he set foot in Dallas.

Since coming to the Cowboys in the 2010 draft, Lee has only played in 64% of the possible 149 games that the Dallas Cowboys have played in that time frame. Contrast that with a player like Zack Martin who has played in all but two games in his five-year career. That’s a 92% availability rate for his career.

The Dallas Cowboys don’t typically pay age. The difficult choice with Lee is that he’s long been a leader for the Dallas Cowboys. However, with the emergence of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, it’s extremely difficult to justify a $7 million cap hit to a part-time player.

Allen Hurns, Wide Receiver

Allen Hurns was a roller coaster ride in 2018.

First, it appeared he was brought in to be an upgrade at the number two spot. Then when the Cowboys shocked the world and released Dez Bryant, he immediately moved up the wide receiver pecking order, but was generally ineffective. After the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper, Hurns became somewhat of an afterthought in the wide receiver snap distribution. Then he was lost in the win over the Seattle Seahawks with a gruesome ankle injury.

Allen Hurns is a fine player, but the Cowboys could get $5 million in cap relief by parting ways with the former 1,000 yard receiver.

A couple weeks ago, I outlined why I think Hurns could be a solution to the problem facing the Cowboys if Cole Beasley walked away. Hurns best attributes shine when deployed in the slot and asked to run over the middle of the field.

Coming off of the ankle injury, the Cowboys could easily move on and use that $5 million to extend one of their own or go after a big name in free agency.

Unlikely, but not Impossible Releases

The next few players are players that will most likely be on the squad in 2019. But as we saw with Dez Bryant, there can always be surprises.

Joe Looney, Center

The 2018 season seemed almost sunk when news came down that Center Travis Frederick was diagnosed with Guillen-Barre Syndrome during training camp. One of the stories of the 2018 season, was the play of Frederick’s backup Joe Looney. Looney may not have been the most valuable player, but you can’t understate how important he wasn’t to the success the Dallas Cowboys had in 2018.

We’ve seen what happens when backups who are incredibly inferior to the starter they play behind see action. Think back to Atlanta in 2017. If the Cowboys get better play from Chaz Green and Byron Bell, that game and perhaps the season turns out differently. Kind of like when Cameron Fleming filled in for Tyron Smith this season. It was a completely different result. Was Fleming perfect? No, but he wasn’t a disaster and the Cowboys were able to win games without their All-Pro left tackle.

Joe Looney is going to be with this team unless someone loses their center and wants to trade for him. In the event the Cowboys wanted to get some cap relief, they could save $1.5 million in 2019, with only $125 thousand in dead money on the cap.

I don’t see them making this move, but for those of you curious, there are the numbers.

Joe Thomas, Linebacker

Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch got all the glory at the linebacker position in 2018, and for good reason, but Joe Thomas was an important piece to the puzzle as well. He provided excellent depth and a lot of good snaps for the Cowboys in 2018, which is why I think he’s back next year.

He only saves you about $2 million on the cap, but if you didn’t want to pay a  backup linebacker $2 million, then you could part ways with him.

Jeff Heath, Safety

Jeff Heath is a solid player, but gets relied upon for a little more than he should. He’d probably be best served with being a rotational safety in the NFL. He has a penchant for making plays, but also has some maddening snaps as well, like the final play against the Rams where Jared Goff was able to scramble for a first down. Heath never saw the bootleg and was late getting to Goff to keep him from picking up the first down.

The Dallas Cowboys like him as a player and he’s likely to stay with the team. He helps on special teams and provides valuable depth.

If they were to move on, they could save $2.5 million.

La’el Collins, Tackle

It’s not often you hear people talk about releasing a starting tackle, and I’m certainly not here to advocate for that.

Collins has had some up and down games, but in his short two-year stint at right tackle he’s been pretty good. He’s stood tall against some of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

His contract will carry him through the 2019 season, but if the Dallas Cowboys wanted to part ways, again, not saying they should, they could save a whopping $8.5 million in the salary cap.

$8.5 million could be the cost of Earl a Thomas or a Tre Boston. That’s  pretty big chunk of change.

Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, offensive line

Dallas Cowboys offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick

Potential Restructures

When it comes to restructures, the Dallas Cowboys have been selective over recent years with who they choose to flip the switch on.

A restructure doesn’t change the money owed to the player, just changes when the pay out happens. When a team and a player agree to a restructure, the cap hit or base salary is lowered to a more manageable amount and the difference is paid out as a bonus. The bonus is then spread out evenly over the remaining years of the contract.

For example.

Player A has four years remaining on their deal with a cap hit of $16 million per year for the rest of the contract. The team and player A agree to restructure the contract to decrease this season’s base salary to $1 million dollars. The $15 million difference is then paid out as a bonus and then the cap hit is added to the final three years. So instead of the cap hit being $16 million per year for the remainder of the contract, it is now $21 million per year.

The problem with restructuring contracts is that you better hope that the players you restructure make it to the end of their contract otherwise you could end up with big dead money holds on your cap.

The Dallas Cowboys could restructure the following players:

Tyron Smith, Tackle

The Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Left Tackle may be the best draft pick they’ve made in the last 10 years. He’s been one of the best in the game at his position for nearly his entire NFL career and until recent seasons, had been incredibly reliable.

According to Over The Cap, if the Cowboys decided to restructure Smith’s contract, they could get $7.26 million added to the salary cap this season.

That’s a big number, which would help you get your hands on a top safety or defensive lineman in free agency. The reasons why you wouldn’t do it surround Tyron’s health.

He’s missed games each of the last three seasons because of back issues. He’s signed through the 2023 season, which is his age 33 season. It’s entirely possible that he continues to play at a high level through the end of the contract, but you’ll always be a bit concerned about his back.

Zack Martin, Guard

If Tyron was the best draft pick, Zack Martin is a close second. He’s been the definition of reliability as he’s provided elite guard play through the first five years of his career making the All-Pro team each of his first five seasons.

If I were managing the cap for the Dallas Cowboys, it would be a no brainer to restructure Martin who is signed through the 2024 season; his age 34 season. Offensive lineman can play at a high level well into their 30’s barring injury and Zack has the ability to be one of those guys. At his current pace, he could one day end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

By restructuring Martin, the Dallas Cowboys could save $7.36 million on the 2019 salary cap.

Travis Frederick, Center

Last summer was a scary situation for Travis Frederick and by all accounts his recovery is going well. It sounds like he should be ready to go by training camp, and if that’s the case, there’s no reason to believe that Frederick won’t be the player we’ve all come to expect and missed during the 2018 season.

He’s a leader on the offensive line. He’s an excellent communicator and really good at blocking other big humans.

Getting Frederick back for the 2019 season is as big of an upgrade as you could have on an offense. He changes everything. He helps set protections and call out stunts. He will make Conor Williams a better guard just by being present. The offense as a whole will be better by having Frederick available.

Like Smith and Martin, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t play out his current contract at a high level. Even if he’s only 75% of his previous self because of the illness, that’s still a really good football player who is worth every bit of the $10 million a year he’s getting paid.

Travis Frederick has five more years left on his contract. If the Cowboys were to restructure his deal, they could gain another $4.1 million in cap relief this offseason.

Tyrone Crawford, Defensive Line

If ever there was a player that was a victim of his contract it’s Tyrone Crawford. The Dallas Cowboys signed him to an extension thinking he would be the answer at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot. He was good on his rookie deal but his contract was more of a projection than a deal based on prior production.

Unfortunately, Crawford hasn’t lived up to his deal, but he’s been a reliable and versatile player for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play both at defensive end and defensive tackle has been huge over the years and he’s come up with some timely defensive plays.

Crawford has two years remaining on his contract that runs through the 2020 season and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cowboys keep him around. He’s a leader on the defense and he gives you good quality snaps. As they continue to wait for Randy Gregory and/or Taco Charlton to take steps forward, Crawford is a guy that they like and will continue to find snaps for.

If the Cowboys restructured Crawford’s contract, they could get a little over $3 million in cap savings this year. $3 million may not sound like a lot, but in combination with the other moves they could make with the cap, it can help. Every bit helps when constructing a roster. That money could go to paying for the 2019 draft class.

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 18: Dak Prescott #4 and Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys celebrate after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Grand Total

The Dallas Cowboys front office has a lot of decisions to make this offseason and several of them will be in the form of extensions for their own players. They’ll have to figure out a way to use the contracts to their advantage.

If they did everything that could be an option to them, they could create another $48.22 million in space in the salary cap. If they didn’t release any of the “unlikely releases,” they could still free up another $33.72 million by releasing Lee and Hurns and restructuring Smith, Martin, Frederick, and Crawford.

So, they’ll be going into the offseason with at least $48 million in cap space, but through a few moves could have as much as $81-$96.22 million in cap space when it’s all said and done.

None of this even accounts for the way the Cowboys could structure the contracts of Elliott, Dak, Cooper, Lawrence, and Byron Jones. With some smart salary structuring, they won’t necessarily have to eat much of their cap hits in year one of their new contracts.

Don’t worry Cowboys fans. The Cowboys will be able to create enough money to get the things done that they want to get done. If they don’t sign anyone of note in free agency or extend your favorite player, it won’t be because they couldn’t afford to.

It’ll be because they didn’t want to.



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Player News

Report: Free Agent DL David Irving Not in Dallas Cowboys’ 2019 Plans

Jess Haynie

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David Irving

The Dallas Cowboys and troubled Defensive Lineman David Irving appear to be at an impasse. According to a report from David Moore of the Dallas Morning News, the team has "no intention" of trying to re-sign Irving and will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent.

Irving started the 2018 season with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He only appeared in two games after that, registering one sack and four tackles.

David Moore on Twitter

Source: Cowboys have no intention of keeping DT David Irving at this time https://t.co/vqMNZty6Aq via @sportsdaydfw

Despite reports of David's ongoing issues with an ankle injury, Dallas never placed him on injured reserve. Then came the reports that Irving was missing practices and team meetings while dealing with personal issues related to the custody of his daughter.

The team stayed pretty mum on the subject of Irving's status throughout the year, falling back on the ankle injury when pushed. But after months, it became clear that either David, the team, or both parties were disinterested in his return to football.

The Cowboys had high hopes after 2017, when Irving posted seven sacks in just eight games. They placed a second-round tender on him last offseason as a restricted free agent and were surely ready to give him a long-term deal if he'd built on that success.

But David's issues, physical or otherwise, have clearly done the opposite.

Dallas is known for working with troubled players, as we've recently seen with Randy Gregory. That they're closing the book on Irving suggests there's an issue with his desire towards football.

It's a sad loss for both. David's potential is enormous, as evidenced by his productivity when he actually does play. But he appears more likely to hit the Commissioner's exempt list in 2019 than the football field, given the reports of multiple failed drug tests over the last year.

Hopefully David Irving can turn things around one day and capitalize on his talent. But if it ever happens, it appears that it won't be with the Dallas Cowboys.



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Player News

BREAKING: WR Terrance Williams Gets Dropped by Dallas Cowboys

Jess Haynie

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Takeaway Tuesday: What We Learned From Cowboys Loss To Packers
AP Photo/Ron Jenkins

The Dallas Cowboys have ended their six-year relationship with Wide Receiver Terrance Williams. According to multiple sources, they have declined a team option on Williams' contract and he will now be an unrestricted free agent in 2019.

The move will reportedly save the Cowboys $2.25 million in salary space this year.

Williams was the team's third-round pick in 2013 and started 68 of the 83 games he played in. He developed into a solid number-two receiver by the end of his rookie deal in 2016 and was given a new four-year contract that offseason.

David Moore on Twitter

Terrance Williams career w/ the Cowboys is done. Sources say the club has declined the WR's option for 2019, making him a free agent. The move is no surprise. He caught just 2 passes for 18 yards last season. His departure frees up $2.25 million on the cap.

After another decent year in 2017, things took a bad turn for Terrance last season. It started with an offseason arrest for public intoxication that eventually led to a three-game suspension, although Williams served that while on injured reserve.

The Cowboys already appeared to be giving Williams' spot away when they made several offseason acquisitions at WR; Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin all were brought in even before Terrance's arrest.

While Williams did start in two of Dallas' first three games in 2018, he only had three passes his thrown his way. The team finally put him on IR due to ongoing complications with a surgically-repaired foot.

While it didn't end well, Terrance Williams' time in Dallas was ultimately a solid return for a third-round pick. He made a few big plays and was a proficient run-blocker, good enough to start in almost 75% of the team's games since he was drafted.

The Cowboys now hope that another third-round pick, Michael Gallup in 2018, will do bigger and better things.



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