Akiem Hicks is as essential as ever to Bears, and he’s good to go for Rams game

Decline in production? He snapped back in 2016. Dislocated elbow and the recent disjointed offseason? He came roaring back. Even this week, after missing time due to illness, Hicks was back to normal at Saturday’s practice.

SHARE Akiem Hicks is as essential as ever to Bears, and he’s good to go for Rams game
Akiem Hicks is third among NFL defensive tackles with 3.5 sacks this season.

Akiem Hicks is third among NFL defensive tackles with 3.5 sacks this season.

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Every time Akiem Hicks looks like he might be slowing down, he snaps back.

That’s how he always has been, and the Bears had perfect timing when they swooped in to sign him just as he launched a resurgence in 2016. The same defensive tackle who never had more than 40 sacks suddenly gave the Bears 23 in his first three seasons.

When it looked like injuries, including a dislocated elbow, would knock him out last season, Hicks stormed back to play through immense pain in the Bears’ last-ditch shot to stay in the playoff hunt.

Time eventually will overtake a 6-4, 325-pound man who has endured almost 5,000 snaps at one of the most taxing positions in sports, but it hasn’t yet. Hicks remains one of the most effective and durable defensive tackles in the NFL as he nears 31.

And he’s still the heart of the Bears’ defense — perhaps of the team at large.

“In a good way, he’s a big personality,” coach Matt Nagy said. “He’s very opinionated, which I like. He’s a leader. When I need to get some advice or ask a question in regards to the pulse of the team and where we’re at, he helps out.”

The Bears just aren’t the Bears without Hicks. They were relieved Saturday when he returned to practice after missing time with an illness. Hicks flew with the team to Los Angeles and will play against the Rams on Monday.

The Bears will need him. Hicks is an essential, both as a pass rusher and run stopper. Few defensive tackles are great at both. When Hicks was out 11 games last season, the pass rush lost its teeth and the run defense buckled. His healthy return has made a tremendous difference.

Hicks has 3.5 sacks, second on the Bears to Khalil Mack, and he has 15 quarterback pressures, a fumble recovery and a pass deflected at the line. His 27 sacks since arriving in Chicago are third among NFL defensive tackles during that span.

For defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, Hicks stands among the most respected and impressive players he has had in nearly four decades of coaching.

“He’s right up there,” Pagano said. “You think of Haloti Ngata, who we had in Baltimore. Just a big, physical, athletic presence inside that dominated people and could push the pocket and win one-on-ones and destroy and wreck a run game.

“[Hicks is] right up there. His leadership and the way he’s playing right now and his focus and determination coming off of last year is really good. And I know it’s just going to continue to get better.”

Hicks is always trending upward. After a disjointed preseason, his playing time increased steadily from 71% of the snaps in the opener to 87% last week against the Panthers. He leads Bears defensive linemen at 79% for the season.

Full bore is the only way Hicks plays. It’s hard to imagine him ever accepting a limited role, and he’s playing so well right now that it’s not going to be discussed anytime soon. More likely, with his contract up next season, the Bears will be interested in extending him. If Hicks can keep playing at this level, they’ll want to keep him around as long as possible.

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