When there is a team that has as many holes in their depth chart has Cowboys have had over the last few years, it is easy to repeat the phrase we have used here over and over. It is, "There are no wrong answers, and there are no right answers." This simply means that whatever you take, it does help. But, whatever you take means you are ignoring other needs that could be argued that would rank "more pressing".
I think that is what struck so many of us when the Cowboys selected Anthony Hitchens from Iowa as their 3rd player taken and 4th round pick - 85 picks after the Cowboys traded up to get DeMarcus Lawrence from Boise State. Sitting for 85 picks and watching attractive names go off the board can cause anxiety in many, but it also causes us to really narrow down and predict where the next pick might be directed at. If someone were to poll the Cowboys fandom, I am reasonably sure that a back-up middle linebacker was not where the masses were leaning. Nevertheless, the Cowboys grabbed Hitchens, leaving highly regarded linebackers on the board who seemed to fit more pressing needs in pass rusher/MLB candidate Carl Bradford from Arizona State (#121) and particularly, the sliding but potential Will LB Telvin Smith from Florida State (#144).
Beginning with the draft call, it seemed rather clear that a great amount of the Cowboys attraction to Hitchens is his special teams ability, with Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia apparently pounding the table to get the LB from Iowa with this pick: The Cowboys selected Hitchens in the fourth round, and Jones informed Hitchens of the selection. After exchanging pleasantries, Jones said: “You’ve got a special teams coach over here that laid in front of the train for you. Whatever you do, you’re going to have to be the best special teams player we’ve got.”
Again, this might be a great case of Jerry saying too many things in public that don't need to be said, but it is a reality in the NFL that special teams are a tremendous consideration that can decide good seasons from bad seasons. If there is one thing clear about Hitchens in my viewing, he is the type of guy that you can line up at R1 or L1 and have him run right down the hash marks as an opening day special teams contributor and not worry about his ability. The reason for this is simple - unlike many draftees, Hitchens won't have to remember how to play special teams because he never stopped at Iowa. Even as their leading tackler, he was always covering kicks and doing a great job in doing so. The question simply becomes how much is that worth to you? Surely, you must have special teams, but with (at the time) 6 7th round picks, many organizations would argue that you certainly don't need to target special teams that high in the draft. Which, of course, leads us to look at what he can do on your defense.
I have spent much of the last week breaking down a tremendous amount of Iowa games, including Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and LSU from 2013. Iowa had a very talented defense in 2013, clearly led by a group of 3 veteran linebackers who are all going to have a chance to play on Sundays. Pick #71 to Cleveland was Christian Kirksey, who was said to be a target of the Cowboys in the 3rd round (provided they had a pick in that round. There was some speculation that pick #71 might have been the 3rd that the Cowboys might have received if they had traded down to #26 with Cleveland so the Browns would jump to #16 and take Johnny Manziel). Then, Hitchens went at #119, and James Morris was left undrafted but was quickly signed by New England and will make a bid to grab a roster spot there.
Their linebackers jumped off the screen at you as they seemed to interchange roles quite a bit, and the coaching staff at Iowa certainly used their experience and ability to tilt the defense to one that was built around this group. You never knew which Linebacker was going to be coming downhill to meet your QB or RB in the backfield, but it was often 1 or 2 of this group of 3. They were quite good.
Of the three, Hitchens played a ton of weak side LB, with Morris taking more of the MLB duties, and Kirksey up on the line of scrimmage as the strong-side LB. Again, this was the majority of the time, but clearly, they interchanged them quite a bit which was a real luxury for a scheme. This is likely a good time to mention that the caliber QB one faces in the Big 10 is miles from the NFL, and therefore, most observers wouldn't consider Hitchens an ideal fit for WLB in the NFL because of all of the pass coverage this means on Sundays. At Iowa, he could play this spot and not get matched up with receivers in man coverage almost at all. They would have him drop back into zones, and I think I would call him comfortable in his zone drops with fine ball awareness, and while I don't want him chasing Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead around the field, I think in basic pass coverages, he would do just fine.
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 other aspect of his game that is exceptional is his ability to win on running plays to the edge. This will get more difficult at the next level, but I love a player who can mirror the running back and then meet him at the corner on a stretch play and not let the runner pass. This is a key move that we see Sean Lee execute, and if the object of this pick is to have adequate play in the likely event Sean Lee doesn't play 16 weeks, then you better figure out how to get an ideal replacement out there. Ernie Sims, Cam Lawrence, and Devonte Holloman all took turns in the late stages of the season and all were out of their depths. In theory, Hitchens should be able to play a brand of LB that shows you only a small drop-off which is what you want from a reserve. Substantial drop offs are what have been killing this team and proving a lack of depth. This should be a different story.
What are the issues he will have to overcome that had many thinking he might be a 6th or 7th rounder? Well, unfortunately, he doesn't seem to have a whole lot of "shed" in his game. When a guard or a FB get to him, there were mostly situations where he was done. He gets blocked and while he is not getting steamrolled, he is also not beating his man and destroying the ball carrier. That is where Lee is exceptional, and I am not sure Hitchens was blessed with the quickness that is required for that. This also results in some real strength mismatches as he was rag dolled a few times by gigantic linemen who got to him and then were able to demonstrate weight class differences for 300 vs 240.
That isn't to say he didn't make a lot of plays between the tackles, but most of those are where he comes free through a gap and is missed by whoever had him as their assignment. In those situations, he is very capable and is a solid tackler and flies to the ball. But, in space sometimes it is hit or miss.
He also times the "A-gap" blitzes well and is at his best going north. And, it should be noted, seems to have the ability to make a play, as his strip and recovery to save Senior Day versus Michigan will live in Iowa lore.
Ball carriers - always use your outside hand!
The Cowboys grabbed a good football player here. Telvin Smith is a real question for me, as I didn't like him in the 1st or 2nd, but to get a LB who could run and more importantly cover them from Bruce Carter reliance seemed appealing to me, but they opted for solid special teams and making sure they had a Sean Lee insurance policy. That is fine and so is Hitchens.
If he is really good, you could find ways to get him on the field, but for now, I believe they want him as a depth LB who can grow into more. Obviously, with a Carter contract situation coming, they have some flexibility at Mike, but very little at Will (is Will Smith the only backup at Will right now? I think so). Could Lee move to Will? I think they don't want to do that, but for now, this is a nice pick-up for the defense, although his quality will determine whether it is a solid 4th or a solid 6th round choice.
But, ask a Hawkeye fan and they will tell you that you have secured a solid player who will give you plenty. Let's see how that translates.