The time for changes has come for the Kansas City Chiefs roster. Entering 2022, many alterations are expected, specifically on the defensive side of the football. There are reasons for a retool of the Kansas City defense. This may include items like opening up salary cap space, players reaching a ceiling within the Chiefs program, or obvious regression of a certain player’s performance.
Some of these upcoming moves will be expected. Elsewhere, there may be some other surprises along the way. It is all cyclical. The Chiefs know they must continue to stay ahead of the curve however, as the next wave of AFC challengers continues to build stronger.
This leads us to today’s topic. It is now time for Kansas City to say goodbye to a certain player. At linebacker, that would be Anthony Hitchens. There are numerous reasons as to why that is now the case. In addition to the items above, there are recent positive trends that make this a possibly more simple move for the Chiefs at this point in time. What are those reasons? Let’s kick it off.
Salary Cap Relief
Most of the time, this is the number one reason as to why teams cut bait with veteran players. Hitchens originally signed a five-year contract with the Chiefs worth a total of $45 million in the 2018 offseason. That $9 million annual salary always felt a bit steep. Nonetheless, Kansas City has always included different structures, openings or relief points in recent contracts under general manager Brett Veach. Kansas City has also restructured with Hitchens in recent years.
In 2022, Hitchens will be in the final year of that deal. He is set to earn a base salary of $7.8 million, according to Spotrac. This includes a $2.8 million signing bonus and a salary cap hit of around $12.6 million. As a result, there are obvious monetary and business reasons as to why it makes sense to move on from the linebacker.
As Spotrac notes, the Chiefs could save $8.4 million in 2022 salary cap space by moving on from Hitchens at any time this offseason. Yes, they would still have to eat a dead money figure of $4.2 million. Though, that feels largely moot and miniscule, when you consider the salary cap relief that they could create with this move and a few others.
Reaching A Ceiling?
If you look at the production Hitchens has had in Kansas City, his four seasons are very similar or on par to what he had during his first four years in the NFL while with the Dallas Cowboys. His Chiefs career includes 381 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits, four pass deflections, two sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. Some of those numbers are more impactful than others. Yet, the pace at which some of those numbers have come has been rather inconsistent. Hitchens has also seen his expectations decrease in recent years, to boot.
There are some items that the linebacker takes care of in crucial moments. This may include calling out signals for the defense during pre-snap, helping to align teammates in the correct spot and communicating defensive play calls from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
But still, there are certainly other players that can step in and assume those same roles. Hitchens has also seen much stronger, faster or younger opposing skill players step into the fray. Overall, this has led to mixed results for the Chiefs linebacker and has led to diminishing abilities, compared to those around him.
Regression In Play
Piggybacking off of that last point a bit more, the dwindled play of Hitchens is due to a pair of issues. There have been physical issues in the play of the Kansas City linebacker. Obviously, he has not been the most athletic individual within the Chiefs defense. Hitchens is average when it comes to change of direction skills, flexibility or speed. The current NFL game is predicated on maximizing opportunities in space with as much pace as you possibly can. Thus, Hitchens is a bad fit, when most of his damage comes from working downhill in the middle of the defense.
On top of that, there are some instinctual issues that stand out. Hitchens has seen his reaction time worsen. Too often, he has been late to find depth, an opposing player running a route in his area, or even just to make a simple tackle attempt. That is part of the reason as to why he has allowed a completion percentage against of 66.7 percent or higher every year with the Chiefs. When you are late, your mind is led to make subtle mistakes, like not staying square to your opponent and making false steps in space. All of these issues have slightly grown over time.
Young Pillars In Place
Finally, the Chiefs have done well to build some younger pillars at the linebacker spot. With Hitchens getting older (he will turn 30 in June 2022) and deeper into his contract, Kansas City has selected two linebackers in each of the last two drafts. Both Willie Gay (2020) and Nick Bolton (2021) were each second round draft picks in recent years. For the most part, the early return on those investments has been rather fruitful.
Gay is a linebacker who can play in space, can cover and has become much more confident with downhill responsibilities. His speed is a game changer on the second level of the Chiefs defense. Whereas with Bolton, he was a highly productive rookie this season. He totaled 112 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, three pass deflections and one fumble recovered for a touchdown. That is do it all type of play that was mostly not expected right away for the Missouri product. Furthermore, Bolton helped add that jolt to the defense in a reserve/rotational role.
Sure, the Chiefs could still use another linebacker addition this offseason to add to those two. The writing is on the wall for Hitchens, however. Kansas City already has younger, faster and more consistent linebackers in place. Simply, the team could add a third linebacker that costs less in either 2022 free agency or in the 2022 NFL Draft. There is a preference to grab another linebacker who can cover. Nevertheless, the duo of Gay and Bolton are primed to build off of 2021 and stabilize their starting duo.
Be on the lookout for more FPC Chiefs articles throughout this week. For more great sports and NFL content, stay tuned to Full Press Coverage.
– Braden Holecek is the Kansas City Chiefs managing editor for Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on Follow @ebearcat9//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Follow @FPC_Chiefs//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js and Facebook.
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