The Dallas Cowboys have to prepare for life without starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Fortunately for them, it’ll be for eight weeks instead of the entire season.
An MRI on Sunday revealed that Hitchens sustained a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee during Saturday’s preseason game, according to a source. That is an eight-week injury to overcome.
The Cowboys had feared that Hitchens tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, which would have ended his season.
Even though the injury news Sunday is more positive than expected, the Cowboys still have to face the reality that one of their most reliable defensive players will miss an extended period of time.
Hitchens started every game last year and was credited with 104 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss and 5 quarterback pressures. He has played in every game of his three-year career, starting 36 of the 48.
Such an incredibly important player for us. I’ve said he’s one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL. ... No matter what, we know whenever he’s back, he’ll be back. He’ll be great. We’re praying for him, hoping for the best.
Sean Lee on linebacker Anthony Hitchens
The hope is that the linebacker corps is deep enough to absorb the blow.
“We have a great group and a deep room,” linebacker Sean Lee said after the game. “I think we have guys who, if he has to miss some time, we have guys who can step up.”
The Cowboys will most likely turn to veteran Justin Durant to fill the void. Durant, who signed days before training camp, hasn’t played in the preseason but has said he’s ready to go.
Jaylon Smith is another option, but the Cowboys aren’t going to change course in their plans to limit his workload early on. Smith and the Cowboys have been deliberate in their approach after he missed all of last season recovering from a severe knee injury.
“You don’t jeopardize a guy’s future over anything like that, but as you know, Jaylon’s coming along,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “The plan all along was for him to be ready to play [against] the Giants. Now are we going to throw him in there for 60-something plays? I don’t think so, but a lot of that is just going to depend on what he’s ready for. My guess is probably not.”
Smith played 12 snaps against the Indianapolis Colts last week, and 16 against the Raiders on Saturday.
He made three tackles, including one for loss.
Smith said he feels good but will remain loyal to the plan the Cowboys have laid out for him.
“It really was just a great opportunity to put some more things on film,” Smith said. “I felt very fluid out there and I’m ready to play some football. I feel like myself. I feel like myself and I’m out there moving fast. It’s just a great, great opportunity to be out there.”
Durant is the most likely option to fill Hitchens’ void, though he’s had injury issues throughout his career. Durant hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2012.
Durant had 280 snaps on defense in 13 games last season. The most snaps he took in a game was 38 against Pittsburgh.
“We’ve brought Durant along slowly,” owner Jerry Jones said. “And just wanted him to get in shape, get him healthy. He came to camp in better shape than any time we’ve seen him. And, so, he’s ready to go.”
Hitchens, though, is a difficult player to replace. This is a guy who took 581 snaps on defense last season — only eight players had more snaps on the defensive side of the ball.
And Hitchens had been widely praised for having a solid camp to date and looking as though he’d become an even bigger contributor in his fourth season.
“Such an incredibly important player for us. I’ve said he’s one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL,” Lee said. “Really having an unbelievable camp, coming into his own, so we’re praying for him. No matter what, we know whenever he’s back, he’ll be back. He’ll be great. We’re praying for him, hoping for the best.”
Added tight end Jason Witten: “He’s so tough to go against. He does everything you want in a teammate and player. He’s tough. He’s nasty. He’s smart. You just hate it for him because you know how much you pour into it. So you feel bad for him, know that he’ll bounce back.”
If Hitchens returns right at the eight-week mark, he’d be ready for the Cowboys’ Oct. 22 game at San Francisco. The Cowboys are then at Washington on Oct. 29.
Another option is for the Cowboys to place Hitchens on short-term injured reserve, which would sideline him for the first eight weeks of the season. If the Cowboys went that route, Hitchens wouldn’t be eligible to return until the Nov. 5 game against Kansas City.
Regardless of what the Cowboys decide to do, at least they know Hitchens will be back.
“We’ll rally around him,” Lee said. “He’s a great guy.”