And no, I was not doing any goatmouthing near Valley Ranch.
Losing the best player you have on defense is terrible, but Lee has missed fifteen games over the past two seasons. To be blunt, Dallas did not handle his loss well, especially in the most recent campaign. And this year, the Cowboys actually are in a position to do better.
This includes not just how to fill the position on the field, but the contract that the Cowboys signed Lee to. He is only going to make $750,000 this season, and not being on the field will mean he is not going to collect another $1.5 million in performance bonus. His cap hit is still $3.7 million according to Spotrac, but the team did wisely protect itself for just this contingency. With $13.5 million in dead money, the speculation that was reportedly flying around talk radio about cutting him is obviously misplaced. He will be placed on IR and get another shot next year.
And now the move to draft Anthony Hitchens in the fourth round looks prescient. Rabblerousr explained the reasons behind that move shortly after the draft, and his reasoning is dead on. Hitchens is not the automatic replacement, but he is one more part that the Cowboys can put in.
Dallas may try to sign a free agent, but there are not a lot of great options out there, and most are going to come with some injury history of their own. I prefer (not that it matters) for the team to look internally. That will mean that the probably candidates to take the starting MLB job are Hitchens, DeVonte Holloman, and Justin Durant.
I don't see Bruce Carter as a real possibility here, because I think the main factor in winning this job is not athletic talent but football intelligence. Carter did not show a lot of that last season, and I think he is going to have more than enough of a job proving he is the starting Will linebacker. Holloman and Durant have a chance. Both played at least one game in the Mike position for Dallas last season, so they have some grasp of what is needed. However, neither were overly impressive. The team has to have someone who can see the offense and make the right calls and adjustments.
This is where Hitchens may wind up being the most important pick of the draft. Bob Sturm did a profile of him after his selection, and he saw something in his play at Iowa that could be the key to all this.
If you want to know where Hitchens really excels, to me it is in two particular spots. One, it is clear that he is a very intelligent player who understands the concepts of a defense and can help his team-mates also see this big picture. I cannot stress enough how important this is for a scheme to have 11 defenders on the same page, and if he is going to be the QB of your defense, he better get this concept. Knowing where you need to be is a given. If you want to be a middle linebacker, you need to know where everyone needs to be. And Hitchens can be seen moving guys and adjusting things very well. I think that is encouraging. And then, of course, he is also a force on the defense which means that not only does he understand it (any of us could aspire to that), he can also do something about plays in his area with his ability (which is something that keeps us on the couch). It should also be noted - and this might have been the scheme more than a revealing look at his personality - he appeared to be the most conservative of the 3 LBs when it came to angles or deployment. He appeared to be the careful LB who often would "play it safe" and allow Kirksey and Morris to look for the big splash plays. Again, that could very well be the way it was coached.
That on-the-field intelligence is going to be the make or break factor for Hitchens. It is fortunate that he seems to have just what the Cowboys need him to have to try and overcome the loss of Lee.
Hitchens has a long way to go, and he is well aware of this. But all indications are that the Cowboys are looking at him as the first option, and they now have over three months to get him ready.
Cowboys immediately went into "get Hitchens ready" mode as soon as Lee injury occured. A lot involved beside practice reps— KD Drummond (@KDP10for10) May 28, 2014
They also should prepare plans B, C, and however many others they can come up with. The team knows full well what injuries can do to you if you don't have sufficient depth. They now need to focus on not just having a starter ready, but to have his backups, whoever they are, properly trained. This is not the end of the season for Dallas, although there are probably a few who will declare so. The Cowboys actually took a crucial step to be ready for this, and it is paying off, although far earlier than anyone would have guessed.