Despite a quick and decisive divorce this offseason, could linebacker Anthony Hitchens return to the Kansas City Chiefs?
The Kanas City Chiefs released linebacker Anthony Hitchens on Feb. 22, the first post-Super Bowl transaction by the team. The move was not surprising to many, despite Hitchens’ starting role and mediocre production.
The Chiefs saw Hitchens as replaceable, with young linebackers Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton taking on bigger defensive roles. Both players have big shoes to fill, but both are potentially better than Hitchens in his prime.
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Hitchens 119th overall in the 2014 draft, and he did not disappoint. He started 48 games in four seasons for the Cowboys, racking up 24 AV according to Pro Football Reference. The Chiefs jumped on Hitchens after the 2017 season, signing him to a five-year contract worth $45 million. Hitchens started strong in 2018, with 135 combined tackles and seven for loss. While his pass coverage skills were not great, the then-26-year-old Hitchens looked promising.
Hitchens never reached those statistical milestones again in Kansas City, averaging 82 combined tackles and five tackles for loss from 2019 to 2021. He also did not improve in coverage, exposing his ceiling in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. He was never bad enough to be benched, but also not good enough for Chiefs fans. Hitchens had a tough road to climb after franchise icon Derrick Johnson departed the team. Hitchens’ high cap hits did not help his popularity either.
Hitchens was a popular cut candidate amongst Chiefs fans for several years. His production was arguably replaceable by a rookie or much cheaper veteran. Looking at stats from fellow linebacker Damien Wilson in 2019 and 2020, that argument was not far off. But, Hitchens remained on the team. Whether it was his leadership, football knowledge, or other factors. it felt like Kansas City never got close to actually releasing him.
That was until Feb. 22, 2022. Kansas City entered the offseason with several holes to fill and little cap space to do it. The Chiefs were able to free up about $8.4 million by releasing Hitchens. While it may not seem like much, it allowed multiple moves. For example, the following free-agent signings total less than $8 million:
- Wide receiver JuJu Smith Schuster
- Linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr.
- Running back Ronald Jones
- Offensive lineman Andrew Wylie
All four of those players will likely contribute significantly in 2022. Hitchens’ value does not outweigh those four combined, especially considering Bolton’s and Gay’s progression. But, there is still a strong bond between Kansas City and Hitchens.
Bolton brought Hitchens back into the Chiefs’ sphere on April 20, 2022, talking to reporters about their remaining bond.
"“Oh, yeah,” Bolton said. “Me and Hitch, we’re still in constant communication. That’s my guy. He’s one of those guys that when I came in, open arms. He helped me learn. Kind of taught me the ins and outs of the industry. Probably at least once a month I check in on him. We’ve been talking throughout the offseason. I was sad to see him go, but I know he’s cheering me on. I’m cheering him on. The best of luck to him if he comes back here or finds another team, I know he’s going to be the best individual himself.”"
Fans and media appreciated Bolton being so candid regarding Hitchens. The Bolton and Gay tandem is one of the best Kansas City has had in a long time. Despite this, Bolton acknowledged the Hitchens-sized hole left in the defensive unit.
"“It’s hard to replace a guy like Hitch,” Bolton said. “It’ll be up to me and Willie (Gay) to kind of help out, be vocal where we can be, not overstepping. Let it come naturally. That’s kind of what we’re doing heading forward. Just trying to put our best foot forward every single day and see where it takes us.”"
General manager Brett Veach piled praise onto Hitchens, during a March 2022 press conference. Hitchens’ tenure did include an AFC Championship appearance in each of his four seasons and a victory in Super Bowl LIV after all. His time in Kansas City paralleled some of the franchise’s best, something that did not escape Veach.
"“I’ve told him many times: When you look up the textbook definition of what ‘a pro’ means, it’s Anthony Hitchens,” Veach said. “He does everything the right way — [a] first-in, last-out type of guy. Smart. Leader. Really cares about the profession.”"
Veach added further fuel to a possible return, keeping the door left open.
"“Who knows?” Veach said, “Strange things happen — and maybe he ends up back in Kansas City. It was a difficult decision — but I can’t say enough about him and his family. Just tremendous people.”"
Think about it. The Chiefs’ top linebacker and front office leader both appreciate Hitchens and what he can still do. Hitchens’ LB1 days may be behind him, but leadership and mentorship still have value in the NFL.
So, how likely is a Hitchens return? There are several factors to consider. What is Hitchens’ desired contract? Why have other teams not signed Hitchens already? Will Kansas City choose to ride with Bolton, Gay, and Carter as the primary three linebackers?
All those factors make any return seem unlikely. The Chiefs have not invested much money into the linebacker position, even after releasing Hitchens. Also, the dime and nickel packages on defense do not call for three linebackers on the field. That is how former safety Daniel Sorenson and former Ben Niemann continued to see snaps. They fit better in formations outside of the 4-3 base.
It would take a cheap contract and injury or two for Hitchens to come back. While he may be a favorite in the organization, the position has to evolve. That progress is giving Bolton and Gay room to grow as Kansas City’s linebackers of the future. A Hitchens return would seem like a vote of no-confidence in Bolton or Gay, barring an injury.
If there has to be a percentage, Hitchens has a 0% chance to return before the draft. Once the summer comes, circumstances may change. Even then, Hitchens’ chances of returning are slim to none.