Anthony Hitchens

Colts Expected To Pursue Anthony Hitchens

After the hiring of former Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus as the team’s new defensive coordinator, the Colts are expected to make a play for Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens once free agency opens, Ed Werder speculates (Twitter link). Anthony Hitchens (Vertical)

Werder goes on to say Eberflus values him as a high-quality player who can help others learn the system. Though Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones has made re-signing Hitchens one of the team’s top priorities in free agency, the team isn’t expected to have much cap room to work with assuming it works out a deal or places the franchise tag on defensive end Demarcus Lawrence.

Though it is just speculation, the move makes plenty of sense and Werder is among the most well-connected reporters working around the Cowboys. No one should be better at setting Hitchens’ value than the Colts new defensive coordinator, who coached the linebacker since he entered the league in 2014.

Hitchens has started 48 of his 60 career games, with the majority coming at middle linebacker. He is versatile, however, and is capable of playing just about anywhere in Eberflus’ 4-3 scheme. Despite missing four games in 2017, Hitchens made 84 tackles.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFC Notes: Eagles, Haden, Cowboys

Despite earlier reports to the contrary, an Eagles source tells Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com (on Twitter) that the team was not in on Joe Haden. The Eagles, the source claims, are content with their young cornerbacks.

It’s quite possible that the Eagles were interested in Haden but were not among the finalists for him, making this all a matter of semantics. In any case, the Eagles were unwilling to approach, match, or exceed the $7MM guarantee that Haden secured in his new three-year deal with the Steelers.

The Eagles will be starting a pair of 23-year-old corners in Jalen Mills and the newly-acquired Ronald Darby. Behind them, they have only one player outside of his 20s in veteran Patrick Robinson. Eventually, rookie Sidney Jones could join the active roster and provide help, but that doesn’t help to boost the group’s experience level.

Here’s more from the NFC:

  • Tests show that Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who suffered a tibial plateau fracture recently, suffered no ligament damage, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. That means that no surgery will be needed and that, in theory, could help to speed up recovery. In a press release, the Cowboys indicated that Hitchens likely will not go on IR. The latest projections have Hitchens missing total eight weeks of action.
  • Doctors say that Bears wide receiver Cameron Meredith only suffered ACL and MCL damage and did not injure any other major ligaments in his knee, Rapoport tweets. Meredith is done for the year, but he could be back in time for next year’s OTAs.
  • Now that the Packers have added Ahmad Brooks to the fold, they can be more patient with rookie Vince Biegel‘s recovery, Ryan Wood of the Press-Gazette tweets. A source tells Wood that he’ll “probably” start the season on the PUP list, meaning that he won’t count against the initial 53-man limit.
  • Former Saints defensive end Royce LaFrance signed with the CFL’s Roughriders, Nick Underhill of The Advocate tweets.

Cowboys LB Anthony Hitchens Out 8 Weeks

Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens suffered a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee in last night’s preseason game against the Raiders and will be sidelined for eight weeks, according to Todd Archer of ESPN.comAnthony Hitchens (Vertical)

While a two-month absence is certainly not ideal, it’s far better news than a torn ACL, which is what Dallas initially feared Hitchens had suffered. Now, Hitchens could be placed on injured reserve but be designated to return later this season.

Losing Hitchens for the season would’ve constituted a large blow for a Dallas defense that can’t afford to take a step back after ranking 18th in DVOA a year ago. Hitchens, 25, started all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2016, and played the second-most defensive snaps (581) of any Cowboys linebacker. In that time, Hitchens posted 78 tackles and 1.5 sacks while grading as the NFL’s No. 49 linebacker among 86 qualifiers, per Pro Football Focus.

Dallas has several options to cover for the loss of Hitchens at middle linebacker, and one course of action could be Sean Lee moving to the middle, as Todd Archer of ESPN.com writes. Veteran Justin Durant is also capable of playing middle linebacker, while second-year defender Jaylon Smith had been set to serve as Hitchens’ direct backup. Smith, still recovering from a gruesome 2016 knee injury, won’t be inserted into the starting lineup, as Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones explained to Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2017 Proven Performance Escalators

According to the NFL’s contractual bargaining agreement, players drafted in rounds three though seven are entitled to raises during the fourth year of their respective rookie contracts. The pay bumps are tied to playing time — a player must have played in 35% of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps in two of his first three seasons, or averaged 35% playing time cumulatively during that period.Donte Moncrief (Vertical)

If one of these thresholds is met, the player’s salary is elevated to the level of that year’s lowest restricted free agent tender — that figure should be around $1.8MM in 2017. Players selected in the first or second round, undrafted free agents, and kickers/punters are ineligible for the proven performance escalator.

Here are the players who will see their salary rise in 2017 courtesy of the proven performance escalator:

49ers: Aaron Lynch, LB; Marcus Martin, OL

Bears: Charles Leno, T; Will Sutton, DT

Bengals: Russell Bodine, C

Bills: Preston Brown, LB; Seantrel Henderson, T

Broncos: Michael Schofield, OL

Browns: Christian Kirksey, LB

Buccaneers: Kevin Pamphile, G

Cardinals: John Brown, WR

Chiefs: Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, G; Zach Fulton, G; Phillip Gaines, CB

Colts: Donte Moncrief, WR

Cowboys: Anthony Hitchens, LB

Falcons: Devonta Freeman, RB

Giants: Devon Kennard, LB

Jaguars: Aaron Colvin, CB; Brandon Linder, G; Telvin Smith, LB

Lions: Nevin Lawson, CB; Travis Swanson, C

Packers: Corey Linsley, C; Richard Rodgers, TE

Panthers: Tre Boston, S; Trai Turner, G

Raiders: T.J. Carrie, CB; Justin Ellis, DT; Gabe Jackson, G

Rams: Maurice Alexander, S; E.J. Gaines, CB

Redskins: Bashaud Breeland, CB; Spencer Long, G; Morgan Moses, T

Texans: C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE; Andre Hal, S

Titans: DaQuan Jones, DL; Avery Williamson, LB

Vikings: Shamar Stephen, DT

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

How The Cowboys Could Replace Rolando McClain

For the second consecutive season, Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain will serve a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse. In 2015, Dallas only had to survive without McClain for a quarter of the season, but given that McClain is facing a 10-game ban for 2016, the Cowboys will need to more seriously consider how they’re going to make up for the loss of their middle linebacker.

We’ve examined how Dallas might go about finding a replacement for McClain, looking at players already on the Cowboys’ roster, free agents sitting on the open market, and veterans who could be on the roster bubble with their respective clubs. Let’s dive in…

Internal options:

The primary name being floated to replace McClain in the middle is third-year linebacker Anthony Hitchens, whom the Cowboys selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Thing is, Hitchens was already a starter — he played on the inside in Anthony Hitchens (Vertical)McClain’s absence last year, and then moved to the outside, ultimately seeing action on about half of Dallas’ defensive snaps. So if Hitchens is being counted on to man the middle full-time, including in sub packages, the Cowboys would need to find a replacement at strong-side linebacker, meaning Kyle Wilber and/or Andrew Gachkar could see meaningful snaps after spending most of their respective careers as special teams players.

[RELATED: Updated Dallas Cowboys depth chart]

Gachkar, meanwhile, is another option to fill in at middle linebacker, and he has experience at the position. If chosen, Gachkar would likely be a two-down player, as Pro Football Focus’ grades have shown him to be effective against the run but a liability in pass coverage. The 27-year-old has never been a major defensive contributor — he was forced to step into the starting lineup when the Chargers suffered a variety of injuries at the linebacker position in 2014, but even then, he only played on 36.5% of San Diego’s defensive snaps.

The “wild card” in this race is second-year player Mark Nzeocha, according to Bryan Broaddus of the Cowboys’ website. A seventh-round pick in last year’s draft, Nzeocha only appeared in two games during his rookie season, managing 14 snaps, all of which came on special teams. Extremely athletic, Nzeocha was all over the field at Wyoming, playing safety and all three linebacker positions. His learning curve might be steep, but he clearly has all the physical tools to play the position.

A source tells PFR that the Cowboys are, for the most part, satisfied with the current state of their linebacker room, and are looking forward to have their young players compete for playing time while McClain is suspended. Dallas, says the source, hasn’t shown a lot of interest in scouring the free agent market for substitutes, so one of Hitchens, Gachkar, or Nzeocha might be the favorite to earn significant snaps this fall.

Free agents:

Donald Butler — After selecting Denzel Perryman in 2015 and Joshua Perry in this year’s draft, the Chargers parted ways with Butler, who had spent the past five seasons with the club. At age-27, Butler is the youngest free agent option on this list, but he’s coming off the worst season of his career, having posted just 40 tackles during the 2016 campaign. Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune accused Butler of “losing interest” after receiving a massive extension prior to the 2014 season, so perhaps some other clubs have made that same assessment.Justin Durant (vertical)

Justin Durant — Durant started 12 games for the Falcons last year, but prior to his time in Atlanta he spent two seasons with the Cowboys, so at the very least he’d offer some familiarity with Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli‘s playbook. Versatility is another point in Durant’s favor, as he played mostly inside linebacker with Atlanta and Detroit, roamed the middle during his Jacksonville tenure, and moved between both positions with the Cowboys.

A.J. Hawk — The Bengals signed Hawk to a two-year deal before the 2015 campaign, but despite injuries limiting fellow linebacker Vontaze Burfict to just 10 games, Hawk rarely saw the field, playing on roughly a quarter of Cincinnati’s defensive snaps. Hawk recently told Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer that although he’s aware a club might not express interest until late in camp (or perhaps after the season begins), he’s staying in shape in the hopes of receiving a phone call.

David Hawthorne — Like Durant, Hawthorne offers positional versatility, having seen action at both inside and outside linebacker. In 2015, Hawthorne was shifted to the weak side in favor of rookie Stephone Anthony, but was then benched, declared inactive, and ultimately released after an unproductive season. Still, he’s got 83 career starts under his belt, and would presumably feel comfortable in the middle of the Dallas defense.

Keep reading for more external options that could be on the Cowboys’ radar…

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East Notes: Kraft, Revis, Cowboys

As the Patriots prepare to represent the AFC East in the Super Bowl tonight, let’s take a look at some notes regarding the Pats, their division rivals, and a few items from the NFC East:

  • Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com writes that the league’s handling of “Deflategate” has thawed the relationship between Roger Goodell and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been one of the commissioner’s biggest supporters and who publicly backed Goodell during the Ray Rice fiasco. Reiss notes that, if Goodell were to lose Kraft’s support, his hold on the commissioner’s job could become a bit more tenuous.
  • ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweets that Patriots star corner Darrelle Revis will be courted not only by his current team this offseason–after New England inevitably declines his 2015 option–but he expects the Bills and Jets to be in on Revis as well. Joel Corry tweets that Revis will have a great deal of leverage, as the Patriots cannot put the franchise tag on him if they decline the 2015 option.
  • Jets owner Woody Johnson received the Steinberg DeNicola Humanitarian Award on Saturday, and before receiving the award, he provided a few clues to his team’s offseason plans. In response to criticism he received earlier this week, when he announced that the Jets would be aggressive in free agency, Johnson stated that although he was not afraid to spend money on free agents, he would not waste money. He specifically mentioned cornerback and strong safety as positions that could be addressed in the free agent market, and he also touched on a possible extension for Muhammad Wilkerson and the team’s quarterback situation (article via Brian Costello of the New York Post).
  • If Washington is to become competitive again in the NFC East, Rich Tandler of CSNWashington.com says new GM Scot McCloughan must move away from the team’s historic reliance on big-ticket free agents.
  • After hearing that the Seahawks have offered Marshawn Lynch a lucrative extension, Joel Corry tweets that the Cowboys will have to substantially increase their offer to DeMarco Murray if they are serious about keeping him.
  • Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News looked at the Cowboys linebacker situation in 2015, both with and without impending free agent Rolando McClain. Fortunately for Dallas, Anthony Hitchens showed that he can play any of the linebacker spots in his rookie season. If McClain comes back, he’ll play in the middle and Sean Lee will be on the weakside. If McClain doesn’t come back, Machota thinks it will be Lee in the middle with Justin Durant/Hitchens on the weakside.
  • More from Machota, who writes that he’d be surprised if Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley, a restricted free agent, gets plucked away by another team. Linebacker Bruce Carter, however, is a different story. Carter has freakish athleticism and he was a projected first round choice in 2011. There could be teams out there that believe they can better utilize his abilities than Dallas has, perhaps by making him an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

Zach Links contributed to this post

 

NFC East Notes: Maclin, Henery, Cowboys

Onlookers held their breath today during the Eagles’ OTAs after receiver Jeremy Maclin fell to the ground holding his knee, writes Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer. While Maclin tore the ACL in his right knee last year, causing him to miss the entire season, today’s incident left him clutching his left knee. Still, any injury to Maclin, who is expected to be leaned on heavily following the release of DeSean Jackson, would have terrified the Eagles’ coaching staff. Luckily, Maclin quickly got to his feet, and later noted that he felt fine.

More from around the NFC East:

  • While Eagles kicker Alex Henery‘s accuracy has decreased each season during his time in the NFL, he remains confident he can win a competition with undrafted free agent Carey Spear (nickamed “Murderleg”), according to Kevin Rossi of CSNPhilly.com.
  • Justin Durant has some experience at middle linebacker, and is also is well-versed in the 4-3 defense after playing under Rod Marinelli with the Lions, so he’s the most natural replacement for the Cowboys at the MIKE position following the loss of Sean Lee, per Calvin Watikins of ESPNDallas.com.
  • Fourth-round rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who signed with the Cowboys yesterday, is also trying to help offset the loss of Lee by adjusting to middle linebacker after playing on the outside while at Iowa, according to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
  • Mackenzy Bernadeau isn’t complaining after losing the Cowboys right guard job to rookie Zack Martin, writes Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Bernadeau started all 16 games at RG for Dallas last season, but is taking reps at all three interior line positions during OTAs in an attempt to become more versatile. “It’s like learning to write with your left hand instead of your right hand,” Bernadeau said about playing left guard. “The only difference is that I was able to play the left side before, so I have some experience there, and it’s just getting used to the technique and the guys end up playing next to you. It’s more important to get used to the guys next to you and what their steps are than the techniques because I’ve played both sides before.”
  • As of yet, Jermichael Finley has no plans to work out for the Giants, but that could change, tweets Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News. New York’s tight end depth chart is currently headlined by Adrien Robinson and Kellen Davis.

NFC East Notes: Hitchens, Robinson, Grimble

The Cowboys have signed fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens, writes Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post. The 6-foot, 240-pound linebacker out of Iowa has already been more heavily scrutinized than many fourth-rounders, as he has been running with Dallas’ first-team defense since Sean Lee tore his ACL. Hitchens did note just a few days ago that he may not be ready to immediately fill the void created by Lee’s injury, but he is at least getting an early chance to show what he can do.

Now for some more notes around the NFC East:

Cowboys Rumors: Bryant, Lee, Hitchens

Many of the league’s top wide receivers – including Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, and Vincent Jackson – have signed deals in recent years that average at least $10MM and exceed $20MM in total guarantees. While Dez Bryant didn’t cite specific figures, he suggested to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com that he thinks his next contract should reflect his place among the NFL’s best wideouts.

“Yeah, I deserve it,” Bryant said of a long-term extension. “I deserve it. I feel like I do. I put the work in, but I let that kind of stuff take care of itself. It is what it is. I let my agent talk about it and give me some feedback.”

According to Bryant, agent Eugene Parker has already engaged in preliminary talks with the Cowboys about a multiyear extension. The standout receiver is slated to earn a base salary of $1.78MM along with $250K in workout bonuses in 2014, the final year of his rookie contract.

Let’s check out a few more Cowboys items….

  • Would Bryant accept a hometown discount to remain in Dallas? He was somewhat noncommittal in his conversation with MacMahon: “I’m loyal to the squad. I’ve always been. Me and my agent are going to talk about [a hometown discount]. We’ll talk about it. You know, this is big. This is life-changing. Like I said, I’ve done everything asked of me, and we’ll see what happens.”
  • In a chat with readers at the Dallas Morning News, columnist Rick Gosselin pointed out that the next contracts for Bryant and offensive tackle Tyron Smith will likely be the biggest deals of their respective careers, so it’s not fair to expect them to accept discounts. Still, Gosselin expects Dallas to keep both players around, since they’re the “shining stars in [Jerry Jones‘] draft legacy.”
  • The silver lining in the news of Sean Lee‘s torn ACL is that the linebacker didn’t tear any other ligaments in his knee, says Albert Breer of the NFL Network (Twitter links). That means Lee can likely have surgery sooner, which advances the timetable for his recovery.
  • As the Cowboys consider options to replace Lee, rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens admits that he may not be ready to immediately step up into the starting lineup (link via DallasCowboys.com). “It’s going to take time,” Hitchens said. “I’ve still got to get everything down. If we had a game tomorrow, no, but it’s a good thing we don’t. I have time to get better.”