There is a chance the Cowboys will not be able to bring back Anthony Hitchens in 2018. Hitchens has been one of the unsung heroes ever since being drafted in 2014. He’s the ultimate “lunch pail” guy that head coach Jason Garrett always fawns over. When they drafted Hitchens in the fourth round, they never expected him to start 48 of the 60 games he’s played in this league. If they lose Hitchens, it’s not going to be easy to find his replacement.
[In this series, come along as we peruse the long list of free agents and focus on players that could be of interest for the Cowboys. Some of these players may, of course, price themselves out of range. However, any time you feel like your team is close like Dallas most definitely does, why not be a little aggressive in the acquisitions department?]
LB Christian Jones, 6’3, 245 lbs, 26-years old - Chicago Bears
Jones spent his college days as a Seminole and as a true freshman recorded 18 tackles and three sacks in spot duty. He would go on to start all but one game over the next three years, recording 207 tackles, five more sacks, and an interception. He finished his collegiate days as a two-time ACC Champion, All-ACC second teamer, and a National Champion (last of the BCS era).
Jones would go undrafted despite his high projections in the 2014 NFL Draft due to a reported drug test failure at the Combine. The Bears signed him as a UDFA and he played in all 16 games as a rookie, starting five games. Jones recorded 69 tackles, two sacks, and defended one pass as a rookie. Jones would start 13 of 15 games in 2015, recording 86 tackles and four passes defensed.
In 2016, the Bears were hoping to trade Jones as they had drafted Leonard Floyd in the first round and Nick Kwiatkoski in the fourth. Jones appeared in 16 games as a backup role player, starting only two games, and he only tallied 15 tackles. This past season, Jones signed a one-year extension for $1.5 million as an insurance policy.
Though he wasn’t originally part of the Bears’ big plans at linebacker, he had his best season. Jones started 11 games out of necessity, he led the Bears with 90 tackles, had two sacks, two passes defensed, and a forced fumble. He’s got quality experience as both an inside and outside linebacker. As well as he’s produced, the Bears are likely to let Jones walk in free agency. The Bears have Floyd coming off of IR from an MCL/PCL sprain. They also have Danny Trevathan, Lamarr Houston, and Kwiatkoski likely ahead of Jones.
The Cowboys have big plans with their own linebackers Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee. However, as good as Lee is, he missed five games this past season and it really hurt the defense who was seemingly lost without him. Expecting Lee to finish the season without missing games is shortsighted. Jaylon Smith is their eventual starter at middle linebacker (they hope), but he’s still a work in progress. Hitchens has been the defense’s saving grace at middle linebacker while Jaylon progresses. If the Cowboys lose Hitchens, they really have some problems on their hands.
The depth chart is filled with Damien Wilson, who’s known better for off-the-field stupidity and Kyle Wilber, who is primarily a special teams contributor. Linebacker is a position that this team would be smart to address in free agency and the draft. They will likely be getting a new linebackers coach and he’ll need more players.
Christian Jones would be a solid signing if they end up not being able to retain Hitchens. He’s got the production and could start games if they need him to, it’ll be interesting to see what his market will dictate. He’s not exactly a household name but he’s been very productive. The Cowboys could look to the draft but finding a veteran player who’s got experience like Jones is invaluable.