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Saturday Spotlight: Akiem Hicks

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at Defensive Lineman Akiem Hicks

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Name: Akiem Hicks

Position: Defensive Tackle

Nickname: Mufasa

Number: 96

Age: 31

Time with Bears: 4 seasons

The Past:

“The only thing that nobody can take from you is this moment right here. Nobody can take this moment from you, so leave your legacy on this field tonight.”

When you look up and down this roster, and envision a bear in your mind, you might land on a name that often gets called on Sundays. The football team in Chicago starts a man on the defensive line who fits the description of a Bear so well that it’s hard to believe he ever played for another team.

He’s 6’ 4”, 347 pounds. He’s fast, too. He’s a massive human being who will maul the absolute crap out of your offensive line.

So who’s going to block Khalil Mack?

Akiem Hicks was far from the standout recruit one might expect a future NFL player to be coming out of high school. He began his college career at the junior college level, playing for Sacramento City College from 2007-08. He stood out as a football player, and as a JUCO transfer, he was ranked by 247 Sports as a 4-star recruit. He chose to enroll at LSU, for coach Les Miles. That’s where the wheels started to fall off for both men.

An internal investigation into recruiting violations of Les Miles came crashing in with a “string of departures or decommitments” including Hicks and others. Suddenly young Akiem was without a school to play for, and ineligible for the year due to the timing of the decommitment.

Hicks moved in with his sister in Colorado Springs, working for DirecTV selling NFL Sunday Ticket packages. Far from the high life he may have expected as a top recruit in the nation, Hicks was driving a 14-year old car back and forth to his 9-5 as he contemplated his future.

The University of Regina called, and Hicks answered. The next fall, Hicks was playing in Canada, and he was eating offensive linemen up. In 2011, Hicks actually was drafted 48th overall by the Omaha Nighthawks of the now-defunct United Football League, but he elected to stay in school for his last season. That 2011 season, he was named first-team All-Canadian, Canada West’s outstanding lineman, and a Canada West all-star. Hicks entered his name into the NFL draft, and his professional career began.

San Francisco 49ers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Saints were the lucky recipients of a 4-year contract with Hicks, and the young defensive tackle hit the ground running in his rookie year, logging 10 solo tackles and forcing a fumble in an October matchup with the Broncos. Hicks took over as a starter on the Saints’ defensive line in 2013, totaling 56 tackles and 4.5 sacks. During his third year with the Saints, he saw his production drop despite still starting 14 of his 15 appearances, and the Saints were unable to reach a deal to keep him in New Orleans. Hicks was traded to New England a few games into his 4th year as a pro, where he finished the year coming off the bench on a loaded Patriots defense.

When his contract ended with the Patriots, Hicks entered free agency the same way he did after he left LSU - minus a team to play for, plus a boatload of talent to add to a lucky squad. That lucky squad? The Chicago Bears.

Ryan Pace made perhaps his biggest free agency acquisition of his GM tenure to-date when he signed the then-26 year old Hicks to a 2 year deal worth $10 million. Not bad for a guy who used to sell DirecTV. Hicks started from the first game he played with the Bears, setting a then-career high of 7 sacks to go along with 36 solo tackles. Hicks was a force of nature for the Bears’ defense, which was building credibility in the league despite a Jay Cutler-led offense which couldn’t get out of its own way. He topped his career high in sacks again the next year, logging a stellar 8.5 quarterback takedowns and plugging every running hole that offensive lines tried to open up his way.

Hicks signed a 4-year extension to stay in Chicago through the 2021 season, and though the Bears fired defensive-minded head coach John Fox after the 2017 season and hired an offensive mind in Matt Nagy, Hicks only saw his production increase. Khalil Mack came to town, and Hicks was gifted an absolutely irresponsible amount of single-blocker matchups. He punished teams by logging another 7.5 sacks, forcing 3 fumbles and terrifying opposing offenses, on his way to his first career Pro Bowl. The Bears won the division almost entirely due to their defense, and with Mack, Hicks, and a no-fly zone in the secondary, the Bears boasted the best defense in the entire NFL.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The following year was rough for many who wore Bears uniforms, with injuries turning a once-fearsome defense into a bend-but-don’t-break squad, and an offense which hung a C+ in its entry-level class up on the fridge and thought it was ready for Nagy 202. How wrong they were. An enormous loss was felt when Hicks went down for 11 games that year, and without another monster to plug into the defensive line, the Bears became susceptible to the will of run-heavy offenses. After the team limped to an 8-8 finish, Hicks entered a crucial 2020 season.

The Present:

When Akiem Hicks signed his 4-year, $48 million extension back in 2017, most Bears fans were excited at the prospect of having a stud defensive lineman for the entirety of his athletic “prime.” What they probably were not paying attention to, however, was the money guaranteed in the 4th year. $12 million cap hit if he plays, only a $1.5 million dead cap hit if the Bears cut him, per Spotrac. If you think the Bears would never opt to cut one of their starters just to save cap room, Taylor Gabriel and Prince Amukumara would like a word.

Pair that with the fact that Dak Prescott might be a free agent this offseason, and there’s plenty reason to suspect the Bears could be cutting ties with just about anybody they’re contractually allowed to who isn’t named Khalil Mack. Therefore, Hicks needed a terrific 2020 season to earn that 4th year, and unfortunately the injury bug wasn’t through with Hicks after 2019. He’s battled a nagging hamstring injury for most of the season, missing practices and even a game against the Packers in November. He hasn’t been 100% and that has been to his and the Bears’ detriment.

So far, he’s logged 28 solo tackles, and 3.5 sacks. If he plays in Chicago next year, it will be because he had an outstanding final 3 games and helped the Bears back into a wild card playoff spot.

The future:

The Bears face a division foe in the Minnesota Vikings in week 15, after finally ending their pathetic losing streak at 6. Hicks’ stats were pedestrian in the two teams’ earlier matchup, logging just 4 total tackles. Hicks has performed well historically against the Vikings, logging 2.5 sacks between their two 2018 matchups, and totaling 6.5 sacks in 7 games against them as a Chicago Bear. The Vikings are a talented team that struggles to use their weapons correctly. Hicks should eat them alive.

Week 15 prediction:

5 total tackles, 4 solo, 2 sacks