FRISCO, Texas – Sunday's win in Philadelphia was fairly routine for Anthony Hitchens. The fourth-year linebacker made two tackles and added a tackle for a loss, wrapping up what has been an impressive campaign for the former fourth-round draft pick.
If there wasn't much significance about the performance itself, it's at least important to note that it could be Hitchens' last in a Cowboys uniform – a fact that he said he hadn't yet considered.
"It hasn't sunk in yet. Hopefully it's not, but it's out of my control," Hitchens said after the game Sunday. "So it really didn't sink in like that, but hopefully it's not."
That's the reality of the situation, though, with the Cowboys' 2017 season in the books. Hitchens enters is fourth NFL offseason as one of the Cowboys' highest profile free agents, and it's anyone's guess where he goes from here.
"It's out of my control right now, but I did everything possible to make this easy for me," Hitchens said. "So I'm not stressing or worrying about what's going to happen."
The fact that Hitchens has put himself in such a good position for 2018 is remarkable, when remembering how this season started. Following a fantastic training camp, Hitchens fractured the tibial plateau in his right knee during a preseason game against Oakland.
Team MRIs eventually showed that the injury would only hold him out for a few weeks. But for one tense night, the veteran linebacker thought his season might be over before it could start.
"The doctor told me right there on the field that I tore my ACL, but he's just got to make sure it's not my MCL, too. So that's the only news I had until the next morning," Hitchens said.
Eventually, that news came back better than expected – and Hitchens got to work. Ultimately, he missed only the first four games of the season, returning in time to make eight tackles in the Week 5 loss to Green Bay.
From there, it was business as usual. Despite missing four games, Hitchens finished third on the team in tackles, with 92, to go along with another nine tackles for loss – second-most on the team, behind Sean Lee.
Working in tandem with Jaylon Smith, he started 10 games at middle linebacker. Hearkening back to his rookie season, when injuries forced him start games at all three linebacker spots, he also made two starts on the weak side when a hamstring injury sidelined Sean Lee in November.
"I just think as a whole -- defense and me as an individual -- we improved every week," Hitchens said. "We started off alright, went in a couple game slump, and then from there we just went up and kept going up. Overall, as a defense, we improved and that's all you can ask for."
That's a fitting quote, because from here on out, asking price will play a big part in the process. Hitchens heads into free agency with quite a resume, having started 48 career games at three different linebacker positions, racking up roughly 300 career tackles in the process.
He has also been remarkably reliable, with this season marking the only occasion in his career he has missed playing time.
Whether that means he signs another contract in Dallas will likely be determined by the demands of the market – not to mention the Cowboys' own financial situation, with fellow starters like DeMarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin needing new contracts, as well.
"Well, he certainly is somebody we want to have back," said Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones on Tuesday. "It's tough to say who's the bigger priority over who. We have some work to do with contracts whether it's DeMarcus Lawrence, whether it's Zack Martin, whether it's an Anthony Hitchens.
All of that will play out over the next few months, as the new league year begins in March and the annual free agent market sorts itself out. Hitchens said he considers Dallas home, having played four seasons here since being draft.
Whether that's still the case in 2018 is something he and the Cowboys will have to wait and see about.
"Yes, definitely, it is a business. I knew that getting into it. You never know it is a business until it hits you on the business side," Hitchens said. "It is something that is out of my control and out of Dallas' control. Hopefully I'm back here."