Day Three is always an interesting time for the Dallas Cowboys and their fans, especially the fourth round, and today started out no differently. With the 119th selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, Dallas selected LB Anthony Hitchens, a 6'0" 240 ibs. Will backer from the University of Iowa. Hitchens is the second Iowa linebacker taken in this draft, after Christian Kirksey went in the third to Cleveland.
The initial reaction for the selection has been one of surprise, as there are few services or scouting evaluations that saw Hitchens as a target for any team in the fourth round. We know that doesn't necessarily translate into a realistic evaluation for a player; but it did send Cowboys scribes scrambling for information on the newest member of the team.
Before you finalize your opinon on Hitchens, watch the below video where he makes several big impact plays against Nebraska. He has an interception at the 1:13 mark, a blitz sack at the 7:45 mark, a cleanup sack at the 11:03 mark and a big hit that resulted in a fumble at 11:55. It's pretty impressive film.
Hitchens is a running back convert, only playing linebacker for a short time. In that time, though, he led the Hawkeyes in tackles each of the last two seasons, totaling 236 over the span, and earned the Defensive MVP award in 2013. In 2012, he ranked fifth in the nation with 11.2 tackles per game.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler has him ranked as the 24th best linebacker, with the following plus characteristics:
- better closing speed than expected with the chase skills and foot athleticism to work around blocks
- clearly improved his football IQ over his career
- bait and floats in coverage with a good feel in space
- a classic overachiever who offers terrific football intangibles
Of course, there are also areas of his game that Brugler thinks he needs to work on:
- plays tight when moving laterally and shows some body stiffness, lacking easy COD skills position…
- too reactionary and needs to improve his diagnose skills to better anticipation the action
- borderline draftable who might have trouble making the 53-man roster.
-- Drafttek.com ranked #295 Overall, #20 at the position
-- Greg Gabriel, National Football Post: Unranked out of 305 prospects
-- CBSSports.com ranked #355 overall, #31 at the position
-- DraftInsider.Net ranked #188 overall, #21 at the position
-- OptimumScouting.com unranked out of 49 Outside Linebackers
-- DraftCountdown outside of Top 256, #26 at the position
-- Scout.com outside Top 20 at position
-- NFLDraftScout.com profile (Rob Rang):
STRENGTHS: Possessing a compact, athletic frame, Hitchens displays an explosive first step, good balance through contact and agility to redirect quickly in space. Highly physical defender who delivers a pop on contact to fight off blockers, as well as good lateral agility to avoid them.
He's also a good fundamental tackler and an effective blitzer who exploits creases in the line and closes quickly in space. Showed significant improvement in route-recognition and spatial awareness in his coverage duties in 2013. Experienced special teams performer. Saw action on kickoff and punt return formations. Made strides in his second full season, providing some hope that the light is coming on.
WEAKNESSES: Comes with size limitations. Possesses a boxy frame that some will see as better suited to fullback and does not possess ideal arm length. Doesn't protect his knees well enough to the cut-block, showing only average flexibility and awareness in this regard.
Relies on his closing speed to hit ballcarriers and knock them to the ground, rather than wrapping securely. While he does get his hips around quickly and maintains burst in transition, he's inconsistent with his awareness of what's going on around or behind him when asked to drop into coverage and stay pointed at the line of scrimmage. When his back is to the quarterback, he'll struggle to get his head back around and track the ball in one-on-one coverage situations downfield, and will occasionally over-run his gap in pursuit up near the line.
COMPARES TO: Jamar Chaney, Atlanta Falcons - Like Chaney, Hitchens possesses a boxy frame that doesn't look the part of an NFL linebacker. Quickness and closing speed, however, give him a shot at surprising, especially if the timely big plays that characterized Hitchens' senior campaign continue.
Hitchens progress will always be measured against the more well-known linebacker prospects that were available when the Cowboys made the selection. Guys like Carl Bradford of Arizona State, Telvin Smith of Florida State and even Jordan Tripp of Montana were more prevalent on the radars of draftniks and fans alike. The thing to remember, though, it's all about what the player does once they open training camp and are truly professional players. The Cowboys clearly scouted those other options and thought that Hitchens was the better prospect.
With all that said, one must wonder about this selection. If Hitchens was so lowly rated by so many services, you have to question if he would have been available with the team's fifth, or even seventh round choices. Was he that much better than other linebacker prospects that you couldn't risk going another direction first, and then circling back for your linebacker? A team must use the knowledge of how a player is viewed around the league, and proximity to other prospects at his position that could be considered "consolation" prizes to the player you've ranked higher. We can only hope that the Cowboys brass did consider all of this and still decided that Hitchens was their guy.