* With the Super Bowl in the past and the 2021 season in the books, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux and Matt Weyrich take a look at potential free agents that the Washington Commanders could benefit from signing this offseason. Next up: LB Anthony Hitchens.
The Commanders may be one of the most quarterback-needy teams, but their offseason checklist also includes a leader for their defense. Middle linebacker has been the one part of the defensive front that Ron Rivera has been unable to nail down since taking over as head coach.
He signed veteran Thomas Davis to fill that role in 2020, but the 37-year-old was a healthy scratch on most Sundays and Jon Bostic ended up carrying the bulk of the load at the MIKE position. Washington then drafted Kentucky product Jamin Davis in the first round last summer, hoping he could ease in at the WILL linebacker spot before taking over as the long-term solution at MIKE.
However, the rookie was thrust into the MIKE role four games in when Bostic suffered a season-ending pectoral injury and Davis didn’t produce the results Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio were looking for — particularly when it came to defensive reads and making adjustments. Heading into the offseason, Rivera discussed openly how he plans to consider moving Davis to a new position next year to “see if it is better for him not to have the kind of pressures that the middle linebacker has on him.”
So with Bostic hitting free agency and Davis moving to the outside, the Commanders’ top internal option at middle linebacker is Cole Holcomb. The former fifth-round pick took over defensive play-calling duties and led the team with 142 tackles last season, moving around between multiple positions. As the roster currently stands, Holcomb is in the only starting-caliber linebacker they have.
The top options in free agency include De'Vondre Campbell, coming off an All-Pro season with the Green Bay Packers, and Foyesade Oluokun, who led the NFL with 192 tackles for the Atlanta Falcons. Both players will require about $10 million a year, which is a little pricey for the Commanders given their need at quarterback coupled with roster holes in the secondary, offensive line and receiving corps.
Yet another candidate became available this week when the Kansas City Chiefs released Anthony Hitchens to avoid his $8.4 million cap hit next season.
Hitchens, 29, has been a durable presence in the middle of Kansas City’s 3-4 defense for the last four years. After beginning his career with the Dallas Cowboys, Hitchens signed a five-year, $45 million deal and emerged as a leader on the championship-caliber defense. He averaged 95.3 tackles per year while playing a key role in the development of 2021 second-round pick Nick Bolton, whose presence ultimately spelled an end to Hitchen's time with the Chiefs.
The Chiefs’ depth at the linebacker position allowed them to give Hitchens a break during games, resulting in his lowest snap total (568) since 2017. In Washington, Hitchens would be a three-down player, assuming the MIKE role as a seasoned play-caller with plenty of playoff experience. Holcomb would then be able to move back to his natural position on the outside while Davis could compete for the other spot with whoever else the Commanders acquire through free agency, trades and the draft.
As Hitchens showed with Bolton, the veteran linebacker embraces his role as a veteran in the locker room and he could help change the directory of Davis’s career — a prospect that would be just as valuable as his play on the field.
Washington expects its defense to be one of the NFL’s best units next season, carrying the team to the playoffs while it sorts out its offensive issues. The only defensive player on the Commanders’ roster with a Super Bowl ring is CB Kendall Fuller, so a little more playoff experience could go a long way.
Having been released by the Chiefs on Tuesday, Hitchens is eligible to sign right away even before free agency opens March 16. If the Commanders want to get their offseason going a bit early, Hitchens stands out as a potential solution to the middle linebacker problem that’s plagued Rivera so far during his time in Washington.
Other Free Agent Targets:
WRs Chris Godwin, Michael Gallup