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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
  • Will

    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

  • Tommy Davis

    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

      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

  • Tommy Davis

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

  • Chuck Wright

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

Dallas Cowboys

Todd Gurley Leaps Ezekiel Elliott on NFL Rushing Leaderboard

Jess Haynie

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Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley

After several weeks as the NFL's rushing leader, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has been bumped to second place. With a 208-yard explosion last week against the Broncos, Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams has leaped Zeke on the leaderboard.

Elliott was no slouch himself in Week 6, putting up 106 yards on the vaunted Jaguars defense. But Gurley nearly doubled that in Denver, and now leads Zeke by 37 yards.

Here are the current NFL rushing leaders, :

  1. Todd Gurley, Rams - 623 yards
  2. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys - 586 yards
  3. Melvin Gordon, Chargers - 466 yards
  4. Kareem Hunt, Chiefs - 456 yards
  5. James Conner, Steelers - 453 yards
  6. Saquon Barkley, Giants - yards
  7. Matt Breida, 49ers - 430 yards
  8. Isaiah Crowell, Jets - 430 yards
  9. Sony Michel, Patriots - 400 yards

It's still early in 2018, but it's already starting to look like a two-horse race for the rushing title. And it's no surprise that those two would be Elliott and Gurley.

Last year, Zeke and Todd were the top two in the NFL for yards-per-game. Gurley missed one game that year and finished second in total yards behind Kareem Hunt. Elliott was held back by his suspension.

Week 7 could allow Elliott to retake the lead. He'll see a Washington defense that he ran for 150 yards on last season in a single game. However, they are currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed.

Gurley gets a slightly softer opponent in the 49ers defense, who are just 13th in run defense. Both games will be on the road.

While these stats certainly aren't as important as wins and losses, they do matter to the players. Rushing titles come back into the conversation when Hall of Fame credentials are being considered.

If things stay at their current pace for Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley, we may be tracking this race all the way through the end of the regular season.



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Player News

Michael Gallup Showing Signs of a Breakout

John Williams

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Cowboys Roster: Dallas Made Right Decisions on Unproven Skill Players

We're only six games into the career of Rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup who was selected 81st overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2018 NFL Draft. It's been a slow start to his career, mostly because of usage. On Sunday, he took a step toward what many thought he could be for the Cowboys when he was drafted; Wide receiver one.

The numbers, one reception on two targets for 27 yards, may not indicate a breakout is coming, but if you look at the two targets he saw and the quality of the corner he faced, they're more impressive.

Marcus Mosher on Twitter

Look at this catch by #Cowboys rookie WR Michael Gallup https://t.co/lD1xJ2WemD

On the Dallas Cowboys first drive of the day, Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott looked Michael Gallup's way down the left sideline and hit him on a nice back shoulder fade that looked an awful lot like a Dez Bryant-like contested catch. It was a key play on 3rd-and-9 to get the Dallas Cowboys into Jacksonville territory on a drive that led to a Brett Maher field goal and a 3-0 lead.

Later in the game with the Cowboys driving to score a touchdown, Gallup made a tremendous catch when he got perfect depth behind All-Pro Corner Back A.J. Bouye and in front of the safety help. It looked to be an impressive touchdown catch just inside the end zone, but was overturned on replay. On review, Gallup wasn't able to get his second foot down after he made contact with the defender. Though the touchdown didn't stand, it was an impressive effort for Michael Gallup.

Jordan Schultz on Twitter

Michael Gallup with a near circus catch to ALMOST haul in his first NFL TD. Ruled incomplete. #cowboys #jags @CSUFootball https://t.co/SePSc3n1Yp

Michael Gallup led the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver group in snaps (81% of the offensive snaps) on Sunday, and according to Mike Clay from ESPN, he led the Dallas Cowboys in routes run as well. Both of Gallup's targets came against Bouye, showing an ability to beat one of the best corners in the NFL.

Mike Clay on Twitter

Michael Gallup paced the Cowboys in pass routes (25) for the first time in his career on Sunday.

As Michael Gallup sees more opportunities to play, his opportunities to make plays are going to continue to grow. With news coming down that Tavon Austin is unlikely to play for several weeks because of a groin injury, more snaps are opening up at the wide receiver position. Tavon played 18 snaps before getting injured on Sunday, so there will be increased opportunities for Gallup moving forward.

Gallup's only seen about 3 targets a game, but with the increased snaps he saw in week six and the potential for even more with Austin coming, the opportunities should grow. As he continues to come down with impressive catches like he did on Sunday (even if only one of them counted), it's going to increase Dak Prescott's and the coaching staff's level of trust in the rookie.

It's safe to say that more big time catches are coming for Michael Gallup and a breakout is coming sooner than later.



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Game Notes

Takeaway Tuesday: Cole Beasley is Your Interim WR1

Mauricio Rodriguez

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As Preseason Begins, Does Prescott Have a "Go-To" Receiver After All?

Watching the Dallas Cowboys beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 40-7 was undoubtedly fun for Cowboys Nation. There were not many positive expectations for the Cowboys heading into this game but both the defense and offense put on impressive performances at home in an attempt to remain serious contenders within the NFC East.

We learned a few things about the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday as they beat one of the top defenses in the NFL. Let's talk about in this week's edition of Takeaway Tuesday!

Cole Beasley Is Your Interim WR1

The Cowboys have yet to find their #1 wide receiver, but Cole Beasley is making a serious statement looking like the most reliable target in Dallas. Being 5'8 and a slot receiver doesn't really help Beasley's case to be the #1 guy, but he's making plays.

Last Sunday, he was the only wide receiver on the team with more than one catch. The other player with more than one reception was Geoff Swaim, who only got his hands on the ball twice. Beasley finished the day with nine receptions for 101 yards and two touchdown catches. The Cowboys need other WRs to step up but in the meantime, let Beasley put the sauce on opposing defenses. Hopefully he continues to hurt defenses like he did versus the Jaguars' feared secondary.

The team still needs a guy who can be a consistent threat on the outside, though. Third-round rookie Michael Gallup could develop into that, but he isn't there yet. We'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, it's all Beasley.

Bright Future for the Defensive Line

Blake Bortles was sacked three times by the so-called "Hot Boyz" last weekend. To be quite honest, the future for this defensive line looks brightest than it ever has. The return of Maliek Collins and David Irving to the field were desperately needed for this defense to take the next step. Collins and Irving were somewhat limited, but their snap counts will surely increase as the season continues.

John Owning on Twitter

A lot of little details went into this sack from Maliek Collins. From his alignment pre-snap to his timing on the spin, it was a beautiful display of rushing the passer by @SavageSevv. https://t.co/CYcfLH6AfB

Randy Gregory also got limited snaps versus the Jaguars, but he was able to make an impact either way. He finished the day with one sack, two hits and one QB hurry. I can't wait until these guys' snaps increase. This should be a very scary unit for opposing quarterbacks.

Dak Prescott's Stats Don't Reflect His Performance

The Jaguars are the best defense this team has faced and yet it's been the offense's best performance. Dak Prescott's passing stats may not look great, but his play was. Even though he failed to cross the 200 yard mark on the air, he rushed for 82 yards and kept Jacksonville's defense honest. Dak has faced a lot of criticism this year and will likely continue to do so.

Even still, we've seen him ball out on various occasions now. Dak can play. He may not be an elite passer, in fact he's far from being that, but he can make this offense work if they play to his strengths.

We've heard players talk about "turning the corner" in Dallas. Cowboys Nation should hope that is the case. What's more frustrating than watching an offense being unable to move the chains and score touchdowns, is knowing they could do it with a better execution and play-calling. Thanks to players like Dak, Ezekiel Elliott and Cole Beasley, there's a silver lining for the Cowboys' offense.

Report: Jason Garrett "Not Going Anywhere" with Possible Extension Coming Soon

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, HC Jason Garrett

Inconsistency is the Problem for Cowboys

Simply put, this is not the team we had witnessed in the first five weeks of the season. Even in the two prior wins this year, the Dallas Cowboys had not looked dominant at all. Specifically the offense. They hadn't faced a defense as tough as the Jaguars', but they were able to drop 40 on them. Now granted, they did it with the help of the defense, but still. We hadn't seen this version of the Cowboys.

Even with a 40-7 win over the Jaguars, it is tough to imagine Dallas will keep this up as the season continues. Hopefully, they do and I'm wrong about this. They need to be more consistent if they want to end up surprising the NFC East and walk away with the division title.

Although they got the big win, they still left points on the field and fail to execute for touchdowns in the second half. Even when the defense forced turnovers. In close games, this cost you wins in the NFL. The Cowboys can't afford to lose many more games, even in a weak division.

Tell me what you think about "Takeaway Tuesday: Cole Beasley is Your Interim WR1" 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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