Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett couldn’t have used more adjectives to describe linebacker Anthony Hitchens on Thursday.
Among them included productive, leader, instinctive. As Garrett put it, “He’s just got a good feel for the game. He sees it. He feels it. Line one for a linebacker is hits on the ball, and he makes a lot of them every time he plays.”
That has been evident since Hitchens joined the organization as a fourth-round pick out of Iowa in 2014. He posted 100-tackle seasons in two of his first three seasons, playing in all 48 regular-season games.
But Hitchens feels he’s at another level in Year 4 even though he missed the first four games this season with a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee sustained in the preseason. He’s also battled a groin injury of late.
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That hasn’t slowed Hitchens much, though, as he is second on the team with 65 tackles. His eight tackles for loss have doubled his career high.
Hitchens wasted no time when asked if this is his best season.
“Oh, yeah. Absolutely,” Hitchens said. “I feel like from my rookie year to now, I’ve grown every year, improved every year. Hopefully someone sees that.”
Hitchens might have been referring to his pending free agency this off-season, but there’s little doubt that he’ll get another contract in the NFL.
His production was easily seen in the Cowboys’ last game against the Washington Redskins. Hitchens had a team-leading 15 tackles, including three for loss.
Hitchens’ highlight play was late in the second quarter when he narrowly forced a fumble on a pass play to Redskins’ Jamison Crowder. Hitchens went upside-down on the tackle.
As he tried to land safely from that position, Hitchens felt his hand on the ball and ripped it loose. Safety Jeff Heath recovered it, but Crowder was ruled down on the play.
Still, those are the types of impact plays that Hitchens is making these days.
“It was a dominant, dominant performance,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “It really was. He went in and just played lights out. Lights out. Heckuva linebacker.
“He’s a snap-to-whistle guy every down. He’s always prepared. He plays so hard. He’s got great instincts. He’s coachable and he finishes everything.”
Hitchens has continued to grow and become more comfortable in Marinelli’s Tampa 2 defense. He understands as well as anyone what is needed from the linebacker corps.
This is a guy who played all three linebacker spots in his first two seasons. His versatility has come handy the past two seasons, too, sliding from middle linebacker to weakside linebacker when Sean Lee has been sidelined.
“It was hard [to play all three as a rookie], I’m not going to lie,” Hitchens said. “But I got through it somehow. Now it’s natural. Every year I’m switching, so I’m used to it now.”
The proof is in the numbers and what others within the organization say.
“He’s the kind of guy you want on your football team,” Garrett said. “He’s going to do everything he can to play to his optimum level. Whether that’s working through an injury and staying engaged, or staying connected with the team so when he comes back he’s ready to go. It’s just what he does week in and week out to take advantage of any opportunity given to him.
“He’s a really productive player. He’s really good for our football team.”
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