DALLAS, TX Ever since yesterday’s unfortunate circumstance, CowboysNation has been in an uproar over the news of Sean Lee’s season-ending ACL injury. Lee has been the heartbeat of the defense, when he stays on the field which since his arrival in 2010 has been seldom. The Cowboys are obviously better with Lee in the fold, but aren’t new to the task of replacing the oft-injured linebacker.
Since 2010, Lee has missed 18 games in his short four years in the league. Though his passion, talent and integrity are all there, his ability to remain healthy will likely keep him from ever reaching his true potential. It’s unlikely the Cowboys will just wash their hands of the disheartened Cowboy, but in the interim something’s gotta give.
At least this year the Cowboys won’t be working on the fly to replace Lee, and seem to have a few candidates on the roster to do just that. Though many shared their outcry of disapproval when the Cowboys selected linebacker Anthony Hitchens out of Iowa in the fourth round; the selection is starting to look better by the minute.
Hitchens was as productive as a linebacker could be in college, the aggressive tackler led his team in tackles in 2013 with 112, also had 13.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks. He’s a very instinctive and very intelligent player, which are two musts for a MIKE linebacker in the 4-3. Hitchens played the WILL at Iowa and was pretty damn good at it but his skill-set doesn’t project well as a WILL in the NFL, and when the Cowboys called his name on Draft Day, they knew he was a better fit to backup Sean Lee.
It’s going to be a tough battle for the young man because he is a rookie after all, yet this is what the Cowboys drafted him for to be Lee’s insurance policy and they’ve most definitely made it clear that they have faith in him for grabbing him in the fourth round. Hitchens has a lot of the same qualities that you see in Sean Lee. Bob Sturm had this to say about Hitchen’s abilities:
If you want to know where Hitchens really excels, to me it is in two particular spots. One, it is clear that he is a very intelligent player who understands the concepts of a defense and can help his team-mates also see this big picture. I cannot stress enough how important this is for a scheme to have 11 defenders on the same page, and if he is going to be the QB of your defense, he better get this concept. Knowing where you need to be is a given. If you want to be a middle linebacker, you need to know where everyone needs to be. And Hitchens can be seen moving guys and adjusting things very well. I think that is encouraging. And then, of course, he is also a force on the defense which means that not only does he understand it (any of us could aspire to that), he can also do something about plays in his area with his ability (which is something that keeps us on the couch). It should also be noted – and this might have been the scheme more than a revealing look at his personality – he appeared to be the most conservative of the 3 LBs when it came to angles or deployment. He appeared to be the careful LB who often would “play it safe” and allow Kirksey and Morris to look for the big splash plays. Again, that could very well be the way it was coached.
The intelligence factor is the most important part of the MIKE’s duties, he has to be able to call defenses and read offenses. He has to have keen awareness and communicate what he sees to position the defense correctly before the snap. If Hitchens is a smart player like many believe he is than that will go along way into helping him develop into a starter this season.
The Cowboys have spent resources on young linebackers the past few seasons. Kyle Wilber, DeVonte Holloman, Bruce Carter all look to factor in somewhere this season. Wilber found his niche last season as a SAM linebacker but will battle Justin Durant and Holloman at that position. Holloman could also challenge either Carter for the WILL or Hitchens for the MIKE, depending on how these coaches see fit. However it is my opinion that Hitchens has what-it-takes to become a damn-good insurance policy. It’s hard to find video on Hitchens except for that big hit video, however in some of the video I was able to find, I see impeccable closing speed and sure-fire tackling ability. He’s not a huge playmaker by any means whereas Sean Lee seems to always get interceptions, but Hitchens makes tackles. He also has a knack to be a hard hitter and rack up tackles-for-losses. So did Lee.
Hitchens may be the best option and one that I’m pulling for but the defense still may need to grab a veteran for assistance. The vets still on the market don’t really garner much attention around this time of year and certainly aren’t defense-saving names but one or two could really help. Jonathan Vilma may be my personal favorite because he’s had a good career in the 4-3, but he comes with concerns. Marinelli may want to turn to luring Brian Urlacher out of retirement but that’s highly doubtful. Angerer is only 27, but he has quite a few red-flags surround him that are still unknown. He has started quite a few games for the Colts though and has been productive, oh and he’s also a Hawkeye like Hitchens.
I foresee the Cowboys remaining committed to their youth which is a really good thing, but grabbing a veteran or two to help your team along is never a bad idea. The task of replacing Lee is a daunting one but nothing new to the Cowboys who’ve had to do this every year. So who will it be? Is Hitchens penciled in or could Carter maybe regain confidence in the MIKE? He did well in 2012. Who knows maybe Holloman believes it’s his job to lose. Either way the Cowboys will exhaust all options to become better than 8-8.