Anthony Hitchens capable of replacing Rolando McClain for Cowboys

Suspensions piling up on Cowboys' defense (2:09)

ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer explains how the Cowboys defense will be impacted by suspensions to key players including Rolando McClain and DeMarcus Lawrence. (2:09)

IRVING, Texas -- Each time linebacker Anthony Hitchens has had an opportunity to start for the Dallas Cowboys, he has done a solid job.

He's about to get at least 10 games to prove he can be a starting middle linebacker after the league announced Rolando McClain had been suspended for the first 10 games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. McClain can return Nov. 21, three days before the Cowboys play Washington on Thanksgiving Day.

Defensive ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence have been suspended for the first four games of 2016. Lawrence was the Cowboys' best defensive lineman in 2016, finishing with eight sacks in his last nine games. Gregory was a top-10 talent in the 2015 draft who fell into the second round, in part, because he failed a drug test at the scouting combine.

Now it should be clear why the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick overall. Owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett know they must rely on offense to win during the first month of the season.

Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Elliott are supposed to help the Cowboys withstand the defensive losses until the suspended players return.

In 2017, the Cowboys hope second-round pick Jaylon Smith will be healthy enough to start. He suffered nerve damage when he tore knee ligaments in the Fiesta Bowl. Until the nerves regenerate -- and there are no guarantees they will -- Smith can't play.

At 6 feet, 235 pounds, Hitchens doesn't have the size of the 6-4, 255-pound McClain. Nor does he bring the physical presence to the defense that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli often raves about. But he runs well, has good instincts and is a good tackler. He had 75 tackles as a rookie and 67 last season.

Hitchens, who can play all three linebacker spots, has started 20 games in his first two seasons.

The Cowboys' biggest concern will be making sure he doesn't get worn down because he's capable of being one of the two linebackers in their nickel defense. Damien Wilson, a fourth-round pick last season, and Mark Nzeocha could get some playing time behind Hitchens in the base defense and the nickel.