Akiem Hicks is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and the Bears sorely missed Hicks when he was out for 11 games a year ago. Chicago’s defense isn’t the same without him. Here are Hicks’ odds at Mybookie to win 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year as well as the Bears’ over/under win total.
Hicks was a third-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Canada. He was a solid player his first four seasons with the Saints and Patriots, but Hicks really blew up after signing a free-agent deal with Chicago ahead of the 2016 season. He was so good that year, the Bears tore up that contract and gave him a four-year, $48 million extension.
When the Bears had the NFL’s best defense and won the NFC North in 2018, Hicks finished the season with 55 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. He received an overall grade of 91.6 from Pro Football Focus in 2018, which ranked as the fourth-highest grade among all qualifying interior defenders. He was named to the 2019 Pro Bowl.
Expectations were sky high last year, but in Week 3 against the Redskins, Hicks recovered a fumble forced by teammate Khalil Mack before exiting the game with a knee injury. He missed one game before returning but then suffered an elbow injury on the opening series of the game against the Oakland Raiders in Week 5 and was placed on injured reserve. Hicks was designated for return from injured reserve on December 2, 2019, and began practicing with the team again. He was activated on December 14, 2019. However, Hicks played in just one game vs. the Packers before being shut down again since the Bears were out of the playoff hunt.
Hicks failed to play in at least 14 games for the first time in his career, as he ultimately suited up just five times in 2019. Hicks’ ability to return to a dominant force in the interior of the defensive line will be a key factor in determining whether or not they can be an elite unit again in 2020. The Bears allowed a full yard per carry (3.94) more without Hicks on the field in 2019.
“Any offense that plays our defense when he’s in the game they have to know where he’s at,” Coach Matt Nagy said of Hicks. “He brings attention. He brings double teams. Anytime you double-team someone in this game, there’s somebody else that has an opportunity, so the more people we can get to get double-teamed, the better coaches we are.”
Prior to last season’s setback, Hicks had put together three straight seasons with seven or more sacks. Getting a healthy Hicks back will certainly provide a boost to the Bears defense this year, said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
“You can’t replace him,” Pagano said. “Certainly, we’re different when he’s out there playing at a high level than when he’s not. In the meeting room and around our guys, he’s a wise, wise man. He’s a smart guy. He gets it. He knows what’s going on. When he speaks, people listen. He’s really, really hungry.”
There has to be a real question as to whether or not Hicks will have the same pass-rushing numbers at age 31 coming off of an injury as there he did during his prime years. He has played over 5,000 NFL snaps and eight NFL seasons. That is a lot of wear and tear over the years. The chances of him being a disruptor in the backfield consistently may be over, but he can still provide consistent value on the field.
“We know he’s a dominant player inside,” Chicago defensive line coach Akiem Hicks said. “He creates a lot of problems for a lot of people. He’s a mismatch for a lot of guards, centers and sometimes tackles as well. Those are the things that elevate the front.”
Chicago is a 1.5-point underdog for Week 1 in Detroit. Hicks missed both 2019 games vs. the Lions.