Replacing Anthony Hitchens will be difficult but Cowboys couldn't pay price

Replacing Anthony Hitchens won't be easy but paying him $9 million a season wasn't the answer either. This may provide an opportunity for Jaylon Smith (right). Tom Pennington/Getty Images

FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys knew they could not afford Anthony Hitchens before free agency even began.

The Kansas City Chiefs have agreed to a deal with the linebacker that will pay him a reported $9 million a season. As valuable as Hitchens was to the Cowboys’ defense, they weren’t going to stretch their legs into that neighborhood.

That’s a lot of money for an inside linebacker and now Hitchens will be viewed differently in Kansas City than he was in Cowboys, replacing a Chiefs legend in Derrick Johnson. In Dallas, he could find shelter in playing in Sean Lee’s shadow.

So now what do the Cowboys do without Hitchens?

Jaylon Smith is the on-campus answer at the moment, but the spot could become a higher priority in the draft, meaning top 2-3 rounds.

With Smith, there are still some hurdles to cross in that journey. His foot, which was affected by nerve damage from the knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame, continues to gain strength. There is a chance he would no longer need the brace that helps keep his foot flexed.

“I know that our trainers and doctors think that he’s got some serious and notable improvements, but, like anything medically, that’s real hard to be succinct about,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said at the NFL scouting combine. “But we have every reason to think that his maturation as [he gets] more experienced playing the position will give him enhanced production, being at the right spot at the right time, so to speak.”

Jones then compared Smith’s work ethic to Michael Irvin’s after the Hall of Fame receiver suffered a knee injury early in his career.

“That was super human, what he did to come back better than he was,” Jones said of Irvin. “And he continues to say years later that [what] made his career, was the rehab work that he did that inspired him to know how much football meant to him. You see that in this Jaylon Smith.”

Jason Garrett admitted the Cowboys played Smith too much, too soon last season when Hitchens was out with a knee injury and Lee was out with a hamstring strain. Smith played better in moderation and not be overly exposed. The coaches credited him with 99 tackles to go with a sack, four tackles for loss and four quarterback pressures. He forced two fumbles.

Considering he missed a full year because of the injury and had a grueling rehab that continued at a different level during the season, Smith put up quality numbers but also found himself out of position too often.

“He played his best football when his snaps were more limited and situations he was most comfortable, playing next to those guys [Lee, Hitchens],” Garrett said. “You got to remember that he's a rookie and he’s coming off an injury. There are a lot of factors that went into his performance this year. But there’s no doubts in our minds that he got better as it went on and he played best when we had him in that environment where he was most comfortable.”

The Cowboys might not have the luxury to keep Smith on a pitch count if they play him at middle linebacker. They could give him time at strongside linebacker and maybe even ask him to rush the passer, which was a strength at Notre Dame.

Replacing Hitchens won’t be easy but paying him $9 million a season wasn’t the answer either.