Once the season starts, Chiefs inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens’ job will be pursuit. His goal on every play will boil down to finding the ball and getting to it with a mixture of speed, force and bad intentions.
The vigor of Hitchens’ pursuit may still come in second to the pursuit that ultimately brought him to Kansas City. In that case, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach relentlessly chased Hitchens, searching for a way to make the linebacker a centerpiece of his team’s defense.
After being rebuffed by the Dallas Cowboys on a potential trade last summer, Veach made Hitchens a top target in free agency this offseason.
“Everyone that had interactions with Anthony Hitchens was like, ‘He has a wife, he has a couple dogs, and then it’s a football playbook,’” Veach said. “We were all into that. Coach (Andy Reid) is all about eliminating distractions. We wanted a guy to come in here and really be excited about the whole process — coming in being a leader, setting a tone on defense, playing hard, playing physical and really teaching the young guys.”
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In total, the pursuit of Hitchens took the better part of a year, but Veach ultimately hemmed him in this offseason and got his signature on a five-year contract worth an average of $9 million annually. It’s early, but Hitchens has rewarded Veach’s relentlessness by providing a veteran presence as well as displaying tremendous work ethic and attention to detail.
The 6-foot, 235-pound fifth-year pro who looks like he’s been carved out of granite stepped right into a spot with the starting unit. And, with veteran linebacker Reggie Ragland sidelined by injury thus far during camp, Hitchens has called the defensive signals for the Chiefs.
Ironically, the Chiefs initially acquired Ragland, who projects to start at inside linebacker next to Hitchens, after Dallas declined to trade Hitchens last summer.
Upon being hired last summer, Veach and his personnel staff began formulating ways to creatively address potential concerns or add depth to the roster with the draft over and free agency done. With Derrick Johnson coming off of an injury, Veach’s first priority was linebacker depth. After Dallas declined to deal Hitchens, the Chiefs kept searching the market and were able to acquire Ragland in a trade with Buffalo.
But Veach never forgot about Hitchens, who became a free agent this offseason.
“We’re sitting there on the free-agency board, and the guy that we made our first call to back in August about his availability, he’s a free agent,” Veach said. “We knew we were going to go in a different direction with Derrick. It just made sense. We spent a lot of time on him with the work we did back in August. Here we’ve come full circle now. Now, we’re right back where we originally started, which is pursuing Anthony Hitchens.”
Following practice on Monday at Missouri Western State, Hitchens revealed that he didn’t watch any tape of the Chiefs’ defense from last season before making his decision. He simply bought into the vision Veach sold him on how he wanted to retool what had become an aging unit.
While the Chiefs loved Hitchens’ character and the fact that he emulated and learned from All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee in Dallas, Hitchens felt comfortable knowing that the Chiefs identified him as a piece to their puzzle before last season.
“It made my decision a lot easier,” Hitchens said. “(Veach) told me what type of players he wanted, and it fit my category. He wanted hard-nosed players that worked hard and are aggressive and love to play ball. That right there was exactly what I wanted in a team.”
Hitchens has earned a reputation as a hard hitter who plays downhill against the run, covers ground and understands angles and is hyper-focused on perfecting his craft. He has started 48 of the 60 games he’s played since 2014, and he recorded the second-most tackles (84) on Dallas’ defense last season.
As far as first impressions go, Hitchens has so far lived up to his billing as the consummate professional.
“He’s smart. He’s relentless,” Reid said. “I try to get up and get going early. I saw him up at five o’clock in the morning getting ready for everything, going over to eat. He’s a focused individual, which we appreciate.”
Hitchens said he filled an entire notebook with his notes from OTAs, and another from minicamp, as he attempts to learn the ins and outs of the entire Chiefs defense. He’s on his third notebook now that training camp has started, and he joked that inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone must be getting tired of him and his writing in every meeting.
“The notes are getting shorter,” Hitchens said. “I can tell you that. That’s a good thing. I’m learning some, but I’m still not where I need to be.”
Without a preseason game having been played and just a few days of full-pads practice, Hitchens has already won over Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
“I would say we are excited because he is exactly the guy that we thought we were getting. Hitch is an all-consumed football guy,” Sutton said.
“He is all football, great competitor, great student of the game. Great preparation. This guy prepares and does a tremendous job. He is physical and a highly competitive guy, and I think he is exactly the guy we thought we were getting. He has demonstrated so far that he is.”