The Dallas Cowboys were ready this time.
Believe it or not, the front office in Dallas finally anticipated that oft-injured linebacker—elite linebacker—Sean Lee would not be able to stay healthy this year, hence the surprise selection of Anthony Hitchens at No. 119 overall in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft.
Like clockwork, Lee went down with a torn ACL about two hours into the team's OTAs.
It's a horrific, but all-too predictable set of circumstances for the Cowboys. Of course, the staff hopes Lee can pull a Melvin Ingram in this new age when knee injuries are not what they once were, as NFL Network's Ian Rapoport helps to explain:
Why haven’t #Cowboys put Sean Lee on IR? Last year, Melvin Ingram tore his ACL 5/14, he played Week 14. Lee tore his 5/27. Could he return?— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 28, 2014
But the San Diego Chargers are far from Dallas in more ways than one. Most importantly, the sound unit was littered with contributors such as savvy vet Jarrett Johnson, whereas Dallas—in the middle of a defensive rebuild—has to lean on a set of unknowns while Lee makes his recovery.
Hitchens will prove up to the task once acclimated, a notion he concurred with shortly after Lee's injury. Rowan Kavner of the Cowboys' website asked the Iowa product if he was ready to replace Lee, and he came up with quite the impressive answer.
“Honestly, right now, no,” Hitchens said. “But I will get there. It’s going to take time. 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.”
The fact Hitchens understands the boots he has to fill is impressive in its own right. He took Lee's spot in OTAs after the injury, a somewhat muddied indication that the staff at least wants to see what Hitchens has to offer.
Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News confirms the staff quickly turned to the rookie:
Dallas Cowboys rookie LB Anthony Hitchens said he took all of the first-team MLB reps in practice today at Valley Ranch in place of Sean Lee— Brandon George (@DMN_George) May 29, 2014
Some within the organization, such as Cowboys assistant director of player personnel Will McClay, vehemently disagree with some of the grades experts assigned Hitchens, as captured by ESPN's Calvin Watkins:
When everybody grades him on our staff and we go through the things that are important to play the position, and the guys hits all the checkmarks we have in the fourth round as far as our grades, we feel comfortable where we are getting him. Out [of] the [Mel] Kipers and those people outside our organization don’t know what we are putting him into and what we are doing. The value is in-house and we feel like we got the right value.
Remember, it was not too long ago Iowa was churning out sound pros at linebacker left and right. Hitchens' numbers during his final two years with the Hawkeyes, via sports-reference.com, speak for themselves:
|Year||Total tackles||Tackles for loss||Sacks||INT|
Provided Hitchens can grasp the playbook and speed of the league over the course of the summer and into the preseason, his instincts in tandem will help to ensure he can act as the Cowboys' sideline-to-sideline enforcer.
Playing the middle of Dallas' defense is not as difficult as it was a year ago. Additions along the line such as Henry Melton and Demarcus Lawrence should make the lives of linebackers easier, and that includes a rookie like Hitchens.
The job in the middle for Hitchens is not all that different from his role at the collegiate level. Come in, sniff out the ball-carrier and make the play. If the coaching staff wants more athleticism on passing downs, bringing in someone like DeVonte Holloman is a possibility.
In a strange way, Lee's injury is not only not the end of the world; it may be a blessing in disguise. Hitchens was brought on board for a reason and may be viewed as the middle 'backer of the future. Now he gets that experience right away, and Lee can move to the weak side upon his return.
It won't always be pretty, but Hitchens will prove his worth in Lee's absence.