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Brett Veach praises Anthony Hitchens, leaving door for return slightly open

Last week, Kansas City released the veteran linebacker to save salary-cap space.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach spoke with the media on the opening day of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Among the topics Veach discussed was the release of linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who was released last week in a move to open salary-cap space.

Veach had nothing but praise for Hitchens’ tenure with the team — which included an AFC Championship appearance in each of his four seasons and a victory in Super Bowl LIV.

“You have a lot of positives in this job,” Veach began. “You get to a lot of great things — but going through something like that is really difficult. It’s even more difficult when you talk about the caliber of person Anthony Hitchens is.

“I’ve told him many times: When you look up the textbook definition of what ‘a pro’ means, it’s Anthony Hitchens. He does everything the right way — [a] first-in, last-out type of guy. Smart. Leader. Really cares about the profession.”

Since Hitchens was released before the start of unrestricted free agency, he is immediately free to sign a contract with a new team. Veach expects him to continue his career somewhere — especially given his track record for helping young players develop.

“I’m sure he’ll play a few more years in this league,” Veach predicted. “He’s a valuable addition to any locker room. I’m sure he’ll have some suitors. He brings a lot to the table — especially for a young linebacking corps.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

“The work he did with [linebackers] Willie Gay and Nick Bolton last year? I think you can ask both [of] those guys. They’d be the first to tell you that they developed into the players they were at the end of the season because of Anthony. I think that will be attractive to a lot of teams with younger linebackers.”

Veach also did not completely close the door on Hitchens playing in Kansas City again.

“Who knows?” he pondered, “Strange things happen — and maybe he ends up back in Kansas City. It was a difficult decision — but I can’t say enough about him and his family. Just tremendous people.”

In reality, it would be difficult for the Chiefs to find a role where they could justify bringing Hitchens back. Bolton had an outstanding rookie season, leading the team in tackles and improving as the season went on. Because of their similar skill sets, few defensive packages would call for Hitchens and Bolton to be on the field together. From a talent standpoint, Hitchens could do nothing in 2022 that Bolton would be unable to do better.

Since nickel formations (with five defensive backs) have widely replaced traditional three-linebacker sets, teams find it increasingly challenging to keep veteran linebackers as backups. Hitchens will turn 30 before the season starts — and this late in his career, he is unlikely to take on a heavy special-teams role, which is generally an expectation for reserve linebackers.

But Hitchens will probably find a new team before the season starts. It will most likely be with a team that needs him to handle a starting role. With the emergence of Gay and Bolton, that’s an opportunity that will not be available in Kansas City. Should he suit up in red and gold again, it would likely be because he is available — and is needed as an injury replacement.

If free-agent linebackers from the 2021 squad are to return, Dorian O’Daniel and Ben Niemann would be the more-likely candidates. Both could be signed for the veteran minimum — and each could provide value on special teams.

In addition, former Chiefs linebacker Damien Wilson could be in the mix. He played 61% of Kansas City’s 2020 defensive snaps — and in 2021, 78% of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ snaps under defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, who is now the Chiefs’ defensive line coach. For a part-time role, the 28-year-old Wilson — who also played on special teams in both of the last two seasons and carried a cap hit of just $1.8 million in 2021 — would also be a better candidate than Hitchens.

It is likely that Veach offered the hope of Hitchens returning to Kansas City as a way of showing appreciation for a player who has genuinely been beloved by the coaching staff. The Chiefs’ front office, however, has rarely shown an affinity for reuniting with former players — and there is little reason to think that with Hitchens, things will be any different.