Every free agency plan comes mapped out with go-to options and contingencies in case a general manager’s ideal falls through. For Ryan Pace in bolstering a Bears defense in need of vast quantities of talent along the defensive front seven, Akiem Hicks, was anything but a “Plan B”.
Hicks, who came over from the New Orleans Saints in the offseason on an incredibly frugal two-year $10 million dollar deal with five million guaranteed, has been an objective revelation. Many had thought that Hicks would be a solid addition to a defense needing size as a nice complimentary partner for the youthful Eddie Goldman.
However, not many believed he would be as dominant as he has been to this point. A standard of control and play that has completely out-shined his fellow 2016 Bears’ marquee, defensive free agency class teammates in linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan.
He’s been everything the Bears could’ve hoped for and more.
Way back in May, Trevathan saw what Hicks could be for Chicago’s defense.
“He’s a mountain,” said Trevathan of his mammoth sized teammate in the spring. “You can’t move him.”
It seems Trevathan either really knew the gold standard of quality defensive linemen coming over from a championship Denver Broncos defense, or was but a prophet in seeing who Hicks was to become at Halas Hall. Maybe both.
The hype and excitement was real.
Hicks wasn’t named to the 2017 Pro Bowl as a snub, but given the name recognition soon to be on his way, accolades will arrive much sooner rather than later. With two games left in this season, the 27-year-old already has a ledger full of accomplishments and compliments in a career year across the board.
To put into perspective just how great Hicks has been, first take a look at this long, “ho-hum” file of statistics:
- In starting all 14 games so far - Hicks has seven sacks - the most he’s ever had in his almost six-year career. That figure ties him for third among interior defensive linemen and with the likes of All-Pro talents, Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.
- He has nine tackles for loss, which is only less than other interior players of Donald, Bengals defensive tackle, Geno Atkins, Panthers defensive end, Kawann Short, and Bill defensive tackle, Kyle Williams: all either generational or very, very good players in comparison.
- A measure that’s almost or sometimes more important than sacks with pressure counting aplenty - Hicks has 15 quarterback hurries, which is in the top 10 among interior impactful defensive linemen.
- Finally, even though facet this can be attributed more to random luck than anything, Hicks has forced two fumbles, with one recovery - doubling and matching previous career and season highs, respectively.
Obviously he’s been quite the fit for a defense that currently sits in the top 10 in least amount of yardage allowed in the NFL.
But you can’t solely attribute what he’s done for the Bears by solely taking a look at box scores.
A player of Hicks’ size at 6’5”, 335 pounds occupies space to keep offensive linemen busy and in turn have other playmakers clean to fly around the field, should Hicks not be able to have a hand involved.
That attention is evident and on example during this play where Leonard Floyd drew a safety against the San Francisco 49ers.
While Floyd is the one that finished the sack with a burst of a pass rushing move against offensive tackle, Trenton Brown; notice how the assignment of the San Francisco offensive line shifts to double team Hicks and free up Floyd. Hicks lines up on the outside shoulder of right guard, Joshua Garnett, and immediately slants in to rush the center, forcing Garnett’s focus away from helping Brown with Floyd.
One-on-one, a guard would never be able to individually match up against someone of Floyd’s athleticism, but Garnett could’ve easily offered support to Brown instead of leaving him on an island with a growing dominant pass rusher. The emphatic result for Floyd became that much easier because of just how much of a menace the offense had to recognize Hicks was.
San Francisco’s offensive line isn’t necessarily the best example of quality (the Bears had six sacks as a team overall against the 49ers), but you can’t deny Hicks flashing resoundingly, regardless of competition.
A gaudy 10 tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, two hurries, and a forced fumble is not to be trifled with. That’s the kind of performance that inspires night terrors in offensive coordinators. And it’s how Hicks won himself a Week 13 NFC Defensive Player of the Week award - which as a vibrant, bright spot could be but one piece of individual hardware a Bears player wins this year.
Of course, as the Dallas Cowboys learned in September, Hicks is also always liable to embarrass opposition by himself in coming after the passer. He possesses the necessary instinct and ability.
I think that's Akiem Hicks but can't see the number clearly. Whoever it is they put Frederick on his ass for Dak's first throw. pic.twitter.com/3E4FmQUa1x— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) September 29, 2016
The man matched up against Hicks above is Travis Frederick: a Pro Bowl center, and one of the best anchors for an offensive line in the league. Not by fluky instance, Hicks humiliated him.
There’s no shortage of acclaim here.
Following the game against San Francisco, Bears head coach John Fox called Hicks, “a good get.”
Defensive coordinator Fangio had similar thoughts this week of his prized 3-4 defensive end saying, “He’s had a very good year, his best in the NFL by far.”
Understatements from both that also brings up a crucial point.
Hicks has outperformed his initial deal with Chicago.
Unequivocally too, considering the pass rushing repertoire he’s showcased. This is someone playing on the last year of his deal in 2017. Whatever the case, it might be more beneficial to ink Hicks long-term and give him a raise sooner rather than later to avoid any negotiating headaches given the trajectory and consistency he’s displayed.
Understandably, with another performance such as the 2016 season, Pace may be forced to offer Hicks a blank check relative to his services for a budding Bears defense.
Hicks has been that good in being more than advertised.
And credit Chicago’s brain trust with some responsibility for his rise as a game breaker too.
The player of old was deployed as primarily a run-stuffer with the Saints and New England Patriots. The Bears coaching staff in Fangio and defensive line coach, Jay Rodgers, didn’t see him in that light. They took the reins off to give Hicks more pass rushing opportunities and it’s paid off in spades.
They’ve instead unearthed a versatile monster in the middle of their defensive puzzle.
After bouncing around with the Saints and Patriots: Hicks has finally found a home that truly recognizes his talent, where he can settle in for a long time.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.