Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks knows it’s not a coincidence that he has blossomed into a Pro Bowl-caliber player in coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense.
‘‘Him putting me in this defense and really allowing me to use my skills for the benefit of the team is just awesome for me because I get a chance to show what I’m capable of,’’ Hicks said.
‘‘He has something. If you have all the tools, he orchestrates and gets you to use your tools the proper way. That’s what he’s done for me.’’
Hicks is in his ultimate comfort zone in Fangio’s defense, which makes this offseason particularly interesting for him. Hicks just signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension in September. He knows he’ll be back next season, but what about Fangio?
Fangio is in the final year of his contract with the Bears, and his future as their defensive coordinator is in doubt, regardless of what happens to coach John Fox after the season. At this point, it’s more likely than not that he won’t be back.
‘‘That would suck,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘I would love to be in his system for another couple of years. I would love to finish playing this game under his tutelage and being in his system.’’
While developing quarterback Mitch Trubisky would be the focal point of a coaching change with the Bears, the effect of Fangio’s possible departure can’t be overlooked. The Bears are a step or two away from becoming an elite defense. But they’re heading in the right direction, even with another injury-riddled season.
Hicks, nose tackle Eddie Goldman and linebacker Danny Trevathan are a solid foundation for the front seven. Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd didn’t blossom into a star in his second season, but he made acceptable progress before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 11.
Cornerback Kyle Fuller is having his best season. Rookie safety Eddie Jackson, a fourth-round draft pick, is emerging as a playmaker. Bubble players such as linebacker Christian Jones and safety Adrian Amos have become more than passable fill-ins as replacements for injured starters.
For the record, Fangio wants to see this thing through after taking the Bears’ defense from near the bottom of the league (30th in the NFL in total yards allowed the season before he arrived) to the fringe of the top 10 (11th in total defense).
‘‘Definitely interested in that,’’ he said.
But it’s not just the potential that is the lure for Fangio; it’s the makeup of the players, too.
‘‘I like the players we’re working with; they’re really a good bunch of guys,’’ he said. ‘‘My favorite part of the day is getting up in front of them and watching tape with them or putting in the defenses for the week. I really enjoy being around these guys.’’
That’s a credit to general manager Ryan Pace, who acquired 22 of the 26 defensive players on the roster. It’ll be interesting to see how much Pace values Fangio this offseason because he might be a bigger loss than Pace thinks.
When Fangio was with the 49ers, he had 10 players combine for 19 Pro Bowl berths in his four seasons. Those same 10 players have exactly one Pro Bowl berth since he left. Six of those players never made the Pro Bowl before they played for Fangio and haven’t made it since he left.
Injuries, retirements and age factored into some of that. But the history is clear: The Fangio Effect is real. It’s something that bears watching as the winds of change blow through Halas Hall. It might turn out Hicks needs Fangio as much as Fangio needs Hicks.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.