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Akiem Hicks’ absence could leave Bears’ defense in a lurch

The former Pro Bowl defensive end left practice Tuesday for an undisclosed reason. He’s the eighth defensive starter to miss practice this training camp, but the Bears are still hopeful of being at full strength when the bell rings.

When Akiem Hicks (center) talks, everybody listens.
When Akiem Hicks (center) talks, everybody listens.
Tyler Kaufman/AP

Since training camp opened with safety Eddie Jackson on the non-football injury list with a hamstring issue, the Bears’ defense has yet to be at full strength in its quest to regain its lost glory.

That doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon. With linebackers Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan and Robert Quinn already out, defensive end Akiem Hicks was a mysterious absentee Tuesday after leaving practice during warmups.

Hicks’ departure occurred after coach Matt Nagy addressed the media Tuesday morning. And the Bears did not divulge any information about Hicks’ absence after practice. Nagy was seen talking to head trainer Andre Tucker on the practice field after Hicks left, then had what looked like an extended, serious conversation with general manager Ryan Pace, presumably about Hicks’ situation. Nagy will meet with the media Wednesday morning.

Hicks is the eighth defensive starter to miss practice in training camp — including cornerback Desmond Trufant, who is battling Kindle Vildor for the starting job. Smith (groin) has been out since Aug. 7 and Trevathan (knee) since Aug. 10.

Previously, Jackson missed 12 days at the start of camp. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman missed 10 days while on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list. Safety Tashaun Gipson (groin) missed two weeks. Quinn missed nine days with a back issue, returned Aug. 12 and played seven snaps in the preseason opener against the Dolphins. But he suffered an ankle injury and has missed practice the last two days.

Nagy said he was not worried about Smith’s extended absence, with the season opener not until Sept. 12. “No news is probably good news with him,” Nagy said.

The Bears generally have been unfazed by the defensive injuries. None of them appears to be serious. There’s still more than three weeks before the opener. It’s a veteran defense that has a base of continuity with first-year coordinator Sean Desai, a Vic Fangio disciple. And the depth appears strong, with defensive end Angelo Blackson and linebackers Christian Jones and Alec Ogletree filling in and Vildor starting in place of Trufant at corner.

The Bears even remain upbeat about Quinn, who already has been sidelined by two injuries as he attempts to atone for a disappointing first season with the team.

“I’m not concerned about him because he had a really good start to the camp,” Nagy said. “When he got here with the rookies, he was looking really good and he’s making plays. It’s football, and you get banged up here or there. We want to make sure we’re smart, get him to Week 1.”

Second-year linebacker Trevis Gipson, who played 35 snaps against the Dolphins, is next in line after Quinn. He’s unproven, though he has shown improvement from last season.

“Trevis has grown up tremendously as far as just fundamental things,” outside linebacker Khalil Mack said. “Playing the run a little more physical, definitely getting off the ball and playing the pass. He’s doing the small things very well. But it’s up to him to take that next leap.”

While it might be disconcerting that key players such as Smith and Trevathan still are not practicing, the Bears are taking a cautious approach with all of their injured players, with an eye on the opener against the Rams.

Jackson returned Aug. 10 but did not play in the preseason opener. Goldman returned Thursday but also did not play against the Dolphins. But both were fully active in practice Wednesday. It remains to be seen, though, how much they’ll play in the preseason.

“It’s great to get Eddie back,” Nagy said. “Conditioning-wise — no worries, no issues at all. He’s been great. For all of these guys . . . you’re always making sure you’re careful a little bit with the reps — who plays, how long they play — because you want to have him Week 1.”