In a recent chat with Dallas Morning News readers, Kevin Sherrington responded to a query about recent fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens:
I didn't get that pick, either, especially since they regard Hitchens as a back-up MLB, or protection for Sean Lee...You have to have a sense of the market to know how to get the best value for your picks. It helps explain why the Cowboys have had such little success generating much mileage from their mid-round picks.
While its impossible to argue what the market value for Hitchens was without seeing all 32 teams' draft boards (I do have it on good authority that the Seahawks really liked him and were threatening to take him later in the fourth round had the Cowboys not done so), it is certainly possible to think deeply about why the Cowboys might go to such trouble to draft a player that they freely admit will be a backup middle linebacker. Why, we asked at the time, pulling our hair and clawing our faces in frustration, would they waste a valuable fourth-round pick in such a way?
Oh, how quickly we forget...
To understand why the front office saw "the Mike" as such a priority, its important to think back to last season, and the injuries that plagued the position. You may not remember, but the Cowboys fielded six different starting linebacker trios in 2013. Here they are:
1. Justin Durant, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter
2. Ernie Sims, Lee, Carter
3. Kyle Wilber, Sims, Carter
4. Wilber, Lee, Carter
5. Wilber, Durant, Sims
6. Wilber, DeVonte Holloman, Carter
And this doesn't include in-game line-up adjustments. For example, in the second half against Green Bay - after losing Sims and Durant to injuries just before halftime - the Cowboys ran out a starting LB corps of Wilber (who spent all of training camp and the first ten games of the season as a defensive end), Holloman (a sixth-round rookie who had missed much of the season due to injuries), and Cam Lawrence (a try-hard camp body who eked out a spot on the practice squad and was called up only because of the decimation suffered at the position).
As the above list suggests, five different players lined up at middle linebacker over the course of the 2013 season. Although that was difficult enough to overcome, it was in-game replacements that the Cowboys defense found particularly confounding. When the coaching staff had a full week to prepare a new candidate to man the middle, he usually acquitted himself reasonably well. However, when the man who had been prepping at the position all week left in the middle of the game, the defense collapsed. Let's review, shall we?
In week ten, the Cowboys ended a season-long string of close losses with a record-setting blowout loss at New Orleans. The game was close at first; early in the second quarter the Cowboys held a 10-7 lead after scoring both times they had the ball. Then, at the beginning of the Saint's second possession, Sean Lee was sidelined with a hamstring injury and all hell broke loose. Let's take a look at New Orleans' drives after Lee left the game (the following is not suitable for small children or fans with weak stomachs):
6-75 (TD/ end of half)
9-63 (missed FG)
6-8 (end of game)
Other than the 15-play grindfest immediately after Lee left the game, the Saints never took more than nine plays to score. To add insult to injury: once the outcome was decided and New Orleans stopped passing the ball (with 11:11 remaining in the final frame), Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas took turns running the ball down the Cowboys throats. Not only were all eight plays in New Orleans' final touchdown drive runs, they converted a fourth and five to hammer a big, rusty nail in Dallas' coffin.
With Lee out of the game and unable to organize an increasingly confused group of defenders, Dallas surrendered both the most "explosives" any team allowed last season (a total of nine) and a record 40 first downs en route to a franchise-worst 625-yard performance.
Five weeks later, in a home tilt against Green Bay, starting Mike 'backer Durant left the game late in the first half due to a re-aggravation of his hamstring injury. This was quickly followed by a hip injury to his replacement, Sims, on the final play of the half. That meant that in the second half, the Cowboys would be down to their third MLB on the gameday depth chart, rookie DeVonte Holloman. Given that Durant and Sims were manning the position due to injuries to starter Sean Lee, Holloman was essentially the team's fourth string middle 'backer - and might well be considered their fifth-stringer had Bruce Carter not also been sidelined that Sunday.
As we may recall, the Cowboys enjoyed an impressive 26-3 halftime lead. But, as they had in New Orleans, the Dallas defense collapsed when the guy who had practiced all week in the middle left the game. After being limited to 120 first-half yards, the Packers scored on all five of their second half drives (save a final kneel-down series), and did so with astonishing speed and ease. To wit:
4 plays, 80 yards: TD
12 plays, 80 yards: TD
5 plays, 22 yards: TD
10 plays, 80 yards: TD
7 plays, 50 yards: TD
It was indeed a tale of two halves: after going 1-6 on third downs in the opening frame, the Packers went 6 of 7 on third down in the second half, with the only "failed" conversion being a third down kneel-down to end the game. Packers QB Matt Flynn went 5 for 5 for 75 yards and a touchdown on his third-down passes in the final 30 minutes. And, after stumbling to four first downs in the initial period (one on a meaningless Eddie Lacy catch-and-run that ended the half), Green Bay ground out 22 second-half first downs.
In both examples, the Cowboy defense utterly collapsed after losing their starting middle linebacker mid-game. And this wasn't limited to losing Lee; as noted above, the collapse against the Packers came after Durant and Sims were injured in rapid succession. During their post-season internal reviews, it must have been clear to the Cowboys braintrust that one of the items on their "high importance" checklist had to be finding a way to avoid such collapses this season.
And that's why it was so crucial to them to select a Mike linebacker capable of steadying the defense in the (likely) event that Lee gets dinged and has to leave a game in 2014. Coming into the draft, Hitchens was highly respected for his work ethic, makeup and overall approach; he's likely to be the kind of player who, like Jason Garrett did in the 90s when backing up Troy Aikman, prepares every week as if he's going to be the starter. If this proves to be the case, the organization hopes, there will be a much less considerable drop-off should Sean Lee have to leave in the middle of a game.
Given Lee's injury history, this sounds like a shrewd investment. Unless, of course, you are a big fan of defensive el foldos...