Perhaps it’s an indictment of current proceedings, but there’s little to suggest that Akiem Hicks isn’t the Bears’ best player until proven otherwise. One could reasonably see that as a qualified endorsement too, because as 3-4 defensive ends come they don’t get much better than Hicks.
Hicks, 28, enters his third season with Chicago as the talented and stout anchor of arguably the Bears’ best position group on their roster. For all of the maligned inconsistencies elsewhere, Hicks and his younger 24-year-old compatriot Eddie Goldman form one of the finest and most underrated defensive line duos in the NFL. A rare luxury the Bears have afforded themselves.
Goldman is a space-eating nose tackle that effortlessly blows back blockers and creates space for his teammates like Roquan Smith to make plays. While Hicks eats space and finds his relentless bull rush putting him in the laps of helpless opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 15.5 sacks in the last two seasons: third-most among 3-4 defensive ends.
It’s not often you see two skill sets complement each other so well, but Hicks and Goldman have established a rhythm. A rhythm that lets them understand how offensive lines are working to take them away, and how to create consistent penetration by building their rushes and pushes in sync. Line games determine so many of the individual one play battles in the NFL, and Hicks and Goldman have perfected them. The only issue is that they’re missing one key cog.
Hicks and Goldman as a pair are a nightmare to deal with, no doubt. Both have been so good, that they will likely have signed extensions with Chicago in successive off-seasons. But if the Bears are going to have a complete playoff-level defense, they need a third man along their defensive line to grow up. Hicks and Goldman can’t play every snap, and if they did, they wouldn’t last.
Whoever that third musketeer is is between Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris, or even rookie Bilal Nichols will be sorted out over the next month and a half of training camp and the preseason. A battle among the best of the rest of the Bears’ beefy defensive linemen.
Give your horses a rest
In the first half of the 2017 season, Hicks was a one-man wrecking crew who galvanized a terrific Bears defensive October run. His performance was highlighted by seven sacks and continued, mounting pressure. After the bye week, when it was evident the Bears didn’t have anyone reliable to give Hicks a spell, is when his play hit a standstill.
Through the last eight games of last year, Hicks recorded just 1.5 sacks. Noticeably, he had a less of a burst despite still playing at a high level. He wasn’t factoring in at the same dominant level early on. Some of that is due to having less energy and opportunity to rest, and some of it is fortune. When you hit such a nosedive like Hicks did, it’s more energy. That half-second difference between getting a quarterback to the ground and merely hitting him.
Of every qualified defensive lineman in 2017, only the Raiders’ Khalil Mack (89.5 percent), Buccaneers Jason Pierre-Paul (91.5 percent), and the Saints’ Cameron Jordan (93.3 percent) played a higher percentage of their team’s respective defensive snaps than Hicks at 85 percent. Notably, the closest to Hicks among that group in weight is Jordan at 287 pounds: who Hicks outweighs by 45 pounds at 332. So it isn’t the most fair of comparisons to smaller guys that are much more able to handle a heavy workload without regressing.
Of every qualified 3-4 defensive lineman in 2017, Hicks played far and away the most. The Rams’ Ndamukong Suh (83.8 percent) and Joey Bosa (81.2 percent) follow Hicks, but each played at least 36 snaps less on the season than Hicks’ total of 930. Bosa at 852 essentially played over a game’s less worth of action in accordance to Hicks. No other 3-4 defensive lineman reached close to 900 snaps or 80 percent of snaps played like Hicks did.
Needless to say, this type of mileage and punishment adds up on larger mammoth-sized players. This is the reason that the Bears need to be careful with Hicks moving forward as they manage his snap counts and find a way to get other effective players on the field. You want your best players fresh throughout the year, not just the first half. If Hicks figures into 2018 in the same way that he did last year, he won’t last at nearly the same capacity as he did before. In fact, the flashes might stop sooner.
You want an All-Pro level defensive end to finally get the recognition he deserves? Play him less, and more efficiently. There’s working your workhorse, and then there’s utterly neglecting the attention he needs to stay on top of his game.
Part of why Hicks played so much in 2017 is easily alluded to: the Bears and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio didn’t trust any of his replacements. An argument could’ve been made for them playing any of Hicks’ younger counterparts for at least an extra occasional series or two, but overall the caliber was lacking. A Hicks running on fumes was deemed better than any of Chicago’s rising defensive options. Something that can’t continue.
Those options being the aforementioned Bullard and Robertson-Harris of course, who will have new competition in the form of this year’s fifth rounder in Nichols.
Each of Bullard (41.3 percent) and Robertson-Harris (19.9 percent) didn’t even feature in half of the Bears’ 2017 defensive snaps. “Starter” and departed veteran Mitch Unrein played in just 36.8 percent of the action. Goldman - Hicks’ best friend - only figured into 57.5 percent of plays. Meaning that the versatile Hicks who can move outside and inside had every part to play.
If these were the primary fill-ins for Hicks, no one would blame him if he privately felt exasperated. No one would have blamed him if he packed it in. The epitome of a man giving everything to his team and it not being enough.
Whatever it has been that’s held Bullard and Robertson-Harris back won’t be tolerated anymore. Confidence, injuries, slower development: pointless, time-wasting excuses for a lack of dynamic and field-tilting play.
Robertson-Harris, a 2016 undrafted free agent, has 2018 as his official make-or-break season. No longer can he rely on a position transition as the reasoning behind his minimal impact. It’s fight or flight for the basketball-sized defensive end.
Meanwhile, a former third rounder touted as a first round talent, Bullard similarly enters a win-or-take-all professional season. The former Florida Gator has to be the one-gap penetrating force that shined in college. Rest assured, the Bears have plenty of fallbacks to see who can do his job instead if he fails.
The presence of Nichols proves that the Bears are opening every door to attempt to rest their premier lynchpin in Hicks. And if that doesn’t motivate their third-year pair, nothing will.
Regardless of what comes of the epic Bullard-Robertson-Harris-Nichols battle, a comfortable defensive line situation is playing out for the Bears.
Whoever doesn’t end up becoming the regular starter opposite Hicks and next to Goldman, figures into the rotation as an expected and appropriate contributor anyway. As will the other younger counterpart — likely Nichols. This sets up for a scenario where the Bears may enter the 2018 season with their two defensive line centerpieces in Hicks and Goldman locked up for a minimum of four years. And, each of Bullard, Robertson-Harris, and Nichols signed cheaply for at least two seasons. The oldest being Hicks, with every other piece 24-years-old sans the 21-year-old Nichols.
Think of the last time the Bears had this much potential upside and ability up front defensively that was balanced nicely across contracts. The mid-2000s Bears would be proud of the accumulated talent and development going on. Your defensive foundation is the guys who can create for your playmakers and back line, and the Bears have their cement laid down properly.
If Hicks goes on more of a pitch count, Goldman continues his steadfast consistency, and a younger core takes its next solid steps, this Bears defensive line can be one of the premier groups in football. They can make Chicago’s entire defense a special standout.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.