When free agency rolls around in a couple months, the Dallas Cowboys will have a lot of tough decisions when it comes to which players they want to retain. One of the bigger decisions will be what to do with veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens. The team wants to keep Hitchens around as Cowboys Executive Vice President, Stephen Jones, shared his thoughts on the young linebacker.
Stephen Jones: He’s certainly somebody we want to have back. It’s tough to say who’s the bigger priority over who. We have some work to do with contracts whether it’s DeMarcus Lawrence, whether it’s Zack Martin, whether it’s an Anthony Hitchens. All of those guys are guys that I think did good work for us this year that certainly want to have back. At the same time we’ve got to manage our cap, and we’ll certainly be doing that. But certainly Anthony is a guy that has been a heck of a football player for us since we drafted him, and a guy that we’d love to have back.
Hitchens is versatile enough to play all linebacker positions. Whether he stays or not will all depend on what type of demand there is for his services. I have been in discussions with K.D. Drummond (Cowboys Wire) and Patrik Walker (Cowboys 247) about contract prices and here is where we all stand with Hitchens:
Patrik and I can see Hitchens return if the price is not too inflated. If a coach like Matt Eberflus lures him over to the Indianapolis Colts with all that cap money, his price may be too rich for the Cowboys front office. If Hitchens gets priced out of Dallas, what should the Cowboys do at linebacker?
If we want to attempt to dial in what the Cowboys front office is going to do, it’s important to try to think like them. That means losing any notion that the team will throw a lot of money at a big name player. Or that they will take interest in an older veteran. Free agency is just used to fill voids and help bridge younger guys so let’s set our sights a little lower. Let’s peruse through all the players and look for some young guys further down on the free agency demand list who would be more realistic candidates for the Cowboys.
Kevin Pierre-Louis (Kansas City), Age 26
2017 stats: 14 games (0 starts), 37 total tackles
[UPDATE: In news that just came out this afternoon, Pierre-Louis was arrested for pot. You can read the article here. That could certainly change things about pursuing him as a free agent. END UPDATE]
Just like Hitchens, Pierre-Lewis was also taken in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. His all-star performance at the combine interested the Seattle Seahawks enough to keep him on the the team for three years before trading him last summer for Kansas City Chiefs linebacker D.J. Alexander.
Pierre-Lewis has been a reserve player his entire career, only starting one game in four years in the league. He struggles diagnosing plays and sometimes can get washed out of the action. There are limitations to what he can do, but offers a little upside if he can correct some of his mental shortcomings. He played in 500 snaps with the Chiefs this season, but half of those were on special teams.
Christian Jones (Chicago), Age 26
2017 stats: 16 games (11 starts), 84 total tackles
Similar to Hitchens, Christian Jones has been a reliable fixture of the Bears linebacker group over the last four seasons. There is nothing over-the-top about his ability, but he’s a solid player. With players like Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman added to the mix since Jones joined the Bears, he’s not heralded as a big piece to their defense. Chicago may want him back because of his dependability, but it won’t be for starter money.
If the Cowboys want a low-ceiling, high-floor guy for about $2 to $3 million, Jones could be a nice sign. This is a small investment and still allows the team to sort out what direction they want to go (draft? banking on Jaylon?).
Red Flag Alert: Went undrafted in 2014 after failing a drug test at the combine. It should be noted he hasn’t had any further issues during his entire four-year NFL career.
Brock Coyle (San Francisco), Age 27
2017 stats: 16 games (10 starts), 62 total tackles
Brock Coyle was an undrafted free agent from Montana who signed with the Seattle Seahawks in 2014. After three seasons in Seattle where he played sparingly (only started five games), he joined San Francisco this season on a one-year, $1.45 deal. He played in all 16 games with the 49ers, starting 10 of them. While logging 191 snaps on special teams, he also saw a lot of time on defense, playing in 646 defensive snaps.
Coyle isn’t a big playmaker. He’s not going to impress coaches with his ability to read and react to plays. He doesn’t have the athleticism to blow up plays in the backfield. So why would the Cowboys be interested in him?
He’s safe. He takes good angles and he’s a reliable tackler. He performed well in an increased role due to the 49ers dealing with injuries to Reuben Foster and the release of NaVorro Bowman.
Corey Nelson (Denver), Age 26
2017 stats: 5 games (0 starts), 4 total tackles
Selected in the seventh round in 2014, Corey Nelson had played in every game with the Broncos entering this season. An bicep injury cut his season short as he was placed on IR in October. While he’s just a reserve linebacker in Denver, he’s played solid in their rotation and is a good special teams player. He’s also been reliable in pass coverage which the Cowboys could certainly use more of.
The LBs were effective in limiting yardage when they gave up receptions last year pic.twitter.com/ekpk6J32bY— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 6, 2017
Nelson is a player the Broncos would like to bring back, but how free agency plays out will have a lot to do with whether or not that happens. Denver has two other linebackers hitting free agency as well - Todd Davis and Shaquil Barrett.
Fun Fact: Corey Nelson was a Dallas Day visit in 2014 so the Cowboys have already shown interest in him once.
Are any of these players appealing to you to fill a void at the linebacker position?