The Bears spent $18 million guaranteed to upgrade the middle of their defense with new inside linebackers, and now they have a player to help keep blockers off Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman.
The team reached agreement Sunday night on a two-year contract for defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, reuniting him with general manager Ryan Pace after they spent time together with the Saints.
Hicks flew to Chicago late Friday to visit and while initial plans were for him to continue to Detroit for a visit with the Lions, that didn’t materialize and 48 hours later he had a deal in place to join his third team since the start of last season.
Originally a third-round pick of the Saints in 2012, Hicks cited his relationship with Pace as one of the keys to him putting the Bears near the top of his list.
“It was a continuing conversation after I arrived and we were trying to get to a good place to where everybody felt comfortable,” Hicks told the Tribune. “I am happy to be here. [Pace] made a huge difference. That was one of the big reasons why I decided to give the Bears an opportunity and come up here and visit and see what the team was going to be doing going forward.”
The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Hicks projects to start at defensive end and has higher upside than Jarvis Jenkins, who held the role last season. That means the Bears have successfully replaced three of their front seven. Trevathan and Freeman have the speed and coverage ability to remain on the field in sub packages, giving defensive coordinator Vic Fangio more flexibility to be creative.
Defensive line is arguably the strongest position in the coming draft, but the Bears lacked a projected starter at end before landing Hicks, whom the Patriots hoped to re-sign after acquiring him in a trade with the Saints on Oct. 1. Hicks also received interest from the Lions, whose new GM, Bob Quinn, came from New England.
Hicks is a powerful man with some athletic ability and versatility, and he is entering his prime at 26. Terms of the contract are not yet known.
The Bears can pencil Hicks in next to nose tackle Eddie Goldman and pursue a defensive end in the early rounds of the draft. The team made a depth addition Saturday when defensive lineman Mitch Unrein was re-signed to a two-year contract, so things are taking shape.
Hicks played the final 13 games of the season for the Patriots and was on the field for 37 percent of the defense’s snaps. He played 66 percent of the snaps for the Saints in 2014 and 2013. If he’s what the Bears expect, it’s reasonable to project that to be a range for his playing time with his new team.
He has been more productive each season as a pass rusher with 17 quarterback knockdowns and hurries last season up from 141/2 in 2014 and nine in 2013. He’s not going to fill up the box score, but Hicks should do the dirty work needed to be productive and make those around him better.
“There is a lot further that I can go and plan on going with the tutelage of the coaching staff that they have here with the Bears right now,” he said. “I got a chance to sit down with Coach Fox and Coach Fangio and really discuss where they see me and my future with this organization and I am excited.”
Pro Bowl offensive lineman Kyle Long had implored Bears fans on social media to reach out to Hicks during the day Sunday, saying that after playing against him twice he was ready to go to battle with him and not against him.
“That’s nothing like he got after me on the field,” Hicks joked. “There is something that has been brewing between us for a couple years and it is going to be an awesome experience to have him as a teammate and a friend.”