Akiem Hicks didn’t get the kind of blockbuster deal that awaits some players when they complete their rookie contracts, but he was in enough demand in March 2016 to receive a handsome pay day from the Bears.
Now the big man in a room of big men is less than 9 months from free agency with a chance to get back to the bargaining table. Hicks turns 28 in November, young enough to command a lucrative contract, and it will be interesting to see if the Bears try to craft a new deal for him before the first game (as they did with outside linebacker Willie Young last August) or during the regular season.
Hicks, who signed a 2-year, $10 million contract after splitting time between the Saints and Patriots in 2015, will earn $5 million this season, and was the Bears’ most dependable defensive lineman last season.
First things first, though, as Hicks has to find someone to represent him in the event the Bears want to open talks. Hicks told the Tribune he parted ways about 3 months ago with agent Frank Murtha, who helped guide him from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan to the NFL.
“I am a free agent that is almost a free agent,” Hicks said. “You get it?”
Hicks said he has met with potential representatives in a “speed dating” process as he seeks the right fit. He could wrap up the process during the team’s 6-week break before reporting to training camp July 26.
When Hicks signed with the Bears, the Patriots were interested in bringing him back at a lower price, and the Lions expressed interest. He knew a short-term deal was the ticket to a bigger pay day if he played well and remained healthy. He could roll the dice and play out the season to find out what awaits in free agency, the only way a player can truly maximize his value.
“I know it’s not always the best way to think of it with this being a business, but I want to get what I deserve or get what I have earned,” he said. “If I earned a new contract, that’s what I earned. If I don’t, that’s the case. It’s really not up to me. I get to put my stuff on the field and show them what I can do, but I can’t make them go upstairs and sign me to a different piece of paper.
“Would I sign back in Chicago? Hell, yeah. In a heartbeat. My mom loves this city. I love this city. My mother was back there saying, ‘Oh, baby, Chicago wants you? You going to go play for Chicago?’ She loves it. She’s from here. It’s becoming home, and I would love to continue playing here if the situation permits.”
It’s not clear what kind of value general manager Ryan Pace places on Hicks. A lot goes into it, and as much as players talk about earning an extension, clubs pay for future production, not past performance.
Hicks was fourth on the team with a career-high 71 tackles (50 solo) last season. He led the defense with five tackles for a loss, and was tied for second with seven sacks while adding 17 quarterback hits. The 6-foot-5, 336-pounder regularly commanded a double team, and elite players at his position are pushing $10 million per season.
Hicks was dependable, playing a career-high 931 snaps. Only six defensive linemen in the league were on the field more, and Hicks ranked fifth among linemen by playing in 86.6 percent of his team’s defensive snaps, trailing only Olivier Vernon, Cameron Jordan, Khalil Mack and DeForest Buckner.
“The only real thing that surprised me was his durability,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “He played a lot of snaps. And he played a lot of snaps at a high level. And it’s hard to do that in the NFL at that position. A lot of people play a lot of snaps, but not a lot on the D-line.
“When you watched him on tape, it’s all a matter of him buying into what we’re teaching him. He focused in on the things we asked him to do and was able to execute it. When you do that, you can have production. So he had a lot of production. And we’re looking for a lot of the same things now.”
The Bears need to be much better versus the run. They allowed only three 100-yard rushers (Lamar Miller, Ezekiel Elliott and Ty Montgomery) but ranked 27th, allowing 121.9 yards per game. They held opponents to 98.4 rushing yards per game through the first nine games, but allowed a troubling average of 152 yards over the final seven games. Injuries took a toll, but the Bears need to be stouter, period.
Jaye Howard is in the mix now at defensive end, joining Hicks, veteran Mitch Unrein, and last year’s third-round pick, Jonathan Bullard, who needs to take a substantial step forward. Maybe the Bears will identify Hicks as a building block with the expectation of more durable seasons to come.
“I am familiar with the situation,” Hicks said. “I know it’s coming around. I’ve just got to be patient, and I have to play my position. To be wanted is the goal. To have a team that says, ‘We believe in you and we want you to go out and put it on the field for us every Sunday until you’re done.’ That’s important to me.”
Time will tell what the Bears say.