Even though he had been projected as a late-round prospect by most NFL draft analysts, the Dallas Cowboys picked Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
The pick was controversial — as any pick perceived as a reach is likely to be — but Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said that in Hitchens, “we saw a guy who could run with size, and we saw one of the few inside linebackers that we thought could come in here and help us if we lost Sean Lee.”
As it happened, Jones’ concern was not unjustified. Only a month later, Lee was lost for the season when he injured his ACL during an OTA workout. But despite Jones’ earlier characterization of Hitchens as Lee’s backup, in July the Cowboys made a deal with the Baltimore Ravens — who still held his rights — to bring Rolando McClain out of retirement.
So it wasn’t until Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant was lost for the season in Week 8 that Anthony Hitchens really had a chance to shine.
That December, Dave Halprin of SBNation’s Blogging The Boys was saying that Hitchens’ play was a big part of the reason the 2014 Cowboys defense was exceeding expectations.
Hitchens is starting to prove himself as an every-down linebacker who is not only physically capable, but his mental acumen is also helping the Cowboys. You really don’t expect that from a rookie, but Hitchens has proved a quick study.
By 2016, Hitchens was established at middle linebacker — starting all 16 games for the Cowboys — but sustained a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee in the last preseason game of the 2017 season, which sidelined him until Week 5. Despite his desire to stay with the organization, at season’s end, the Cowboys decided to let him become a free agent.
Enter Brett Veach of the Kansas City Chiefs.
In a surprisingly candid press conference in March, Veach revealed that the first move he attempted to make as the Chiefs new GM in 2017 was to make a deal for Hitchens, because he was concerned that Derrick Johnson might not come all the way back from his 2016 injury. But at that time, Dallas didn’t want to move Hitchens.
So when Hitchens entered free agency, the Chiefs were happy to give him a five year, $45 million deal — one that our own analysis said made the Chiefs immediately better at inside linebacker for 2018.
Standing before the press at training camp on Monday, Hitchens said that Veach’s earlier attempt to trade for him influenced his decision to join the Chiefs.
“When Brett Veach was trying to get me from the Cowboys last year, it made my decision a lot easier when he told me the kind of players he wanted, and I fit in that category,” he said. “He wanted hard-nosed players that work hard — ones that are aggressive and love to play ball. That’s exactly what I wanted in a team.
“I know a couple of players that came through the system and talked to them about it,” he continued. “Justin March was a linebacker here last year, and he’s with the Cowboys now. He explained to me how the people here are — how the coaches are, how the players are — and it’s similar to what I’m used to. It all made my decision a lot easier.”
Hitchens said while he had paid little attention to the Chiefs defense while he was a Cowboy — he only concerned himself with the offenses Dallas would be facing — the Chiefs defense clearly understands the problems they need to solve in 2018.
“Coach brought up some stats where we need to improve — third down was one of them, and rush defense was another, “ he explained. “We’re definitely working on that now. I see guys out here - including myself — who are trying to get better in those situations. So when those situations come up in practice, we’re really locking in.
“It’s always important to stop the run. If a team can run, then they can pass, and then they can do whatever they want. If we can make a team one-dimensional with Dee Ford and Justin Houston on the edge — and everyone knows it’s a pass — the odds are in our favor.”
Hitchens was reluctant to say exactly what role he would fulfill in the Chiefs defense. “My role can change,” he said. “It just depends on the week and the situation we’ll be in.
“For me, my role right now is just to get better, and just learn the system as best I can, and learn as many positions as I can. I’ve done that my whole career; I always learned all three positions when I was playing in a 4-3. Here it’s three positions, but it’s a different terminology. It’s just to learn as much as I can - soak it all in and work hard. Once Week 1 gets here, I can tell you more about my role.”
Whatever his role ends up being, Hitchens is clearly happy in his new home. “We all have the same intention. We all have the same goals. We all want to work hard. We all want to win.
“Brett Veach has brought a lot of good guys here that like to work hard. That’s the main thing. They way they’ve get this organization up - the players they’ve brought in, the coaches and the other people in this organization - it’s all tied together. They’re all good people, and easy to work with. Brett has done a tremendous job with that, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.”