Bears fans know what Akiem Hicks means to the heart of their favorite team’s defense. Hicks commands extra attention at the line of scrimmage, and yet still finds a way to gobble up ball-carriers, bring down quarterbacks, and cause all sorts of havoc in the backfield. But because Hicks is a defensive end in a 3-4 front, he hasn’t been receiving the love he deserves.
NFL.com’s Cynthia Frelund conjured up a formula to highlight the league’s most underappreciated players. This group of under-the-radar studs are players who were drafted in or after the third round of the draft, have been named to two Pro Bowls or fewer, then created a metric to put a value on each player’s contribution to their team’s winning ways. I like the concept, process, and execution here. And I *LOVE* that Akiem Hicks cracks the list.
After making his first Pro Bowl in 2018, Hicks – a third-round pick by the Saints in 2012 – made the top-5. We all know about what the Bears defense did last year in boasting the best scoring defense and a top-5 yardage group while coming up with the most takeaways, allowing the fewest touchdowns, and collecting the third-most sacks. What we don’t know (and frankly, don’t want to know) is where this group would have been without Hicks in the middle of it all.
Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics note that Hicks came away 34 run-stops (second most among interior defenders) with 51 pressures (tied for the ninth most among players at his position). Hicks’ ability to be an impact defender against the run and the pass makes him nearly impossible to block, hence the numerous double-teams. But because Hicks gets additional attention, players like Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols, and others are left to clean up the scraps because they’re free to do so.
We have often talked about speed on the offensive side of the ball, but leave it to Frelund to underscore Hicks’ underrated quickness:
“My favorite computer vision note from my model? Hicks’ ability to get within five or fewer feet from opposing quarterbacks (a proxy for pressure) increased in the second half of games last season. Only two interior defenders ended the season getting “faster as games went on.”
That’s mind-blowingly great! So not only was Hicks great last year, he got better as the year went on.
Because Hicks’ first two seasons were spent on teams that under-performed, he didn’t get name-recognition despite being a dominant force on a solid defense in a major market. However, that’s going to change soon – especially if he can keep it up.
Hicks finally broke through with a Pro Bowl season last year after years of being snubbed, but I don’t expect for him to not play with the chip on his shoulder that has driven him to be as great as he has been to this point. Keep the good times rolling, big fella! Stardom is within your grasp.