The Dallas Cowboys drafted Anthony Hitchens to back up middle linebacker Sean Lee and contribute on special teams. That’s the typical role asked of a fourth-round draft pick his rookie season.
But Hitchens has played more, contributed more and meant more than the Cowboys ever expected.
“Any time you get a player like that in the mid-rounds, it’s hard to argue that he’s not playing like a first-rounder when he’s played all three positions, and he’s played all three at a high level,” Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said.
Of all the things the Cowboys counted on to go right this season for them to get out of their .500 rut, Hitchens wasn’t one of them. But Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during organized team activities in May.
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Bruce Carter has missed three games; Justin Durant played only six games before landing on injured reserve; and Rolando McClain watched two games from the sideline.
Hitchens has been the one constant, playing every game and starting at every linebacker position.
“Things happened, and I just had to grow up a little faster,” Hitchens said.
Hitchens started at weakside linebacker against the Tennessee Titans, in the middle against the St. Louis Rams and against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and at strongside against the Houston Texans. His 239 defensive snaps rank fourth among the team’s linebackers, trailing only McClain, Durant and Carter.
The Cowboys even trust Hitchens enough to make the defensive calls and checks.
“He’s done a really good job,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I think we felt really good about his football instincts and his football IQ when we drafted him. He just seemed like that kind of a player. He played the right way. But it is a lot to ask a young player to come in and play and play as much as he has and also play different spots. He’s done a really good job for us that way.
“It’s been important for us, because you can be challenged that way. A certain player gets hurt, and all of a sudden there’s a big void there. I think our team has done a good job stepping into those voids and having younger players step up. He might be the lead dog in that category, because it seems the more responsibility we give him, the more he handles it really, really well and shows up in those games.”
Hitchens’ 47 tackles rank fifth on the team. Twice, he has stopped running backs on fourth-down plays.
He stood up Jacksonville running back Toby Gerhart on fourth and 1 midway through the third quarter Sunday, with help from his teammates. He did the same against the Rams, stopping Zac Stacy for a 1-yard loss on fourth down at the Dallas 15 in Week 3.
“Just over time you build trust with yourself, and the players trusting you, and you’ve got people telling you that you can do it, and you’re all right, and you’re going to be just fine,” Hitchens said. “So you’ve got people around you helping out.”
Hitchens, who played at Iowa, already has proved more valuable than his draft status.
“All I’m trying to do is get better,” he said. “As long as I keep getting better, I’ll be all right. Some people doubt me, some people didn’t, so just block out the noise and try to get better.”