Maybe there will come a day when Akiem Hicks will see the trade — leaving the Saints, the only NFL team he’d ever known — as critical to the growth he has experienced since.
Maybe he’ll recognize its role in what he has become: the Bears’ best player, who’s paid as such.
“You try to look at situations,” the defensive lineman said last week. “Everything’s clearer in hindsight. All — issues and stresses — anytime something bad happens, the more time you get away from it, the less it hurts, right?
“This isn’t one of those situations.”
New Orleans was his first professional home after stops at Sacramento City College, LSU and the University of Regina. He still goes back two or three times each offseason.
But he’s not sure how he’ll feel when the Bears take the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. The trade still hurts.
“That was a pivotal point in my career,” he said. “Whether you make a lot of money or make a lot of plays in the future, you never forget the ugly situations.”
Hicks remembers Saints coach Sean Payton walking into his defensive-line meeting room Sept. 30, 2015, to say he was traded for blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.
“It was an eerie feeling,” Hicks said. “It was a weird, devastating kind of feeling.”
Hicks’ playing time decreased sharply in the first three weeks of the 2015 season, but he didn’t want to be dealt. He said he didn’t ask to be.
But he felt he was miscast as an edge rusher in a defense whose bosses were in the midst of a power struggle.
“You hate to put excuses out there — ‘This is why this happened? Woe is me’ — but when you take a 335-pound, 6-5 defensive tackle and you make him a defensive end, things don’t tend to work out,” Hicks said.
Six weeks after the trade, coordinator Rob Ryan was fired and replaced by assistant Dennis Allen. Ryan said later that Payton insisted they mimic the Seahawks’ schemes in 2014 and 2015. That pushed Hicks to the edges of the line rather than lining him up over guards or straight across from tackles in the 3-4.
Hicks went from starting every game in 2013 and playing the second-round playoff game “shot up with 15 different drugs” in his torn ankle ligament to feeling unappreciated two years later.
“You just feel like, ‘You don’t want me here. I’m not wanted. I’ve given blood, sweat and tears for this program,’ ” Hicks said. “You understand it’s a business at the end of the day, but I’m a human being. I’m a person.
“So the sweat equity that I put into the situation, or that team, you feel like you hope that it’s valued.”
Hicks finished 2015 with the Patriots, then, despite a last-minute call from Bill Belichick, chose the Bears in free agency. He reunited with GM Ryan Pace, who was part of the 2012 Saints front office that drafted him in the third round, and other familiar faces.
“They were around me when I was growing as a young man,”Hicks said. “I think everybody grows. I think in his role, [Pace] has grown a lot as a person, and I feel the same way about myself.”
Hicks started all 16 games as the Bears’ 3-4 defensive end last year, torturing guards and tackles and setting a career high with seven sacks.
“He’s right in the perfect position right now,” Payton said. “You see the disruption in the base and the nickel. He plays with good leverage.
“He’s someone that it’s very important to. I have nothing but great things to say about him. When you’re watching him now, you’re watching a guy in each game that’s creating the interior push in the pocket. He’s a handful, whether it’s a tackle or a guard that ends up matched on him.”
Hicks is on a short list of players — along with retired Super Bowl champ Rob Ninkovich and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins — whom Payton regrets letting get away.
“Obviously, I’m happy to see the success he’s having,” Payton said. “I wish it was here.”
On the eve of the season, Hicks ensured that his perfect fit would stay that way. He signed a four-year, $48 million deal, with $30 million guaranteed.
He has played like it ever since, posting six sacks and a fumble recovery.
“Last year was a big improvement from the beginning of the year to the end of the year,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “He started this season how he left off a year ago and continues to get better each week.”
On his third team in three seasons, Hicks is on his way to his first Pro Bowl appearance — if not an All-Pro honor.
“You’re always looking for a home, especially when you get drafted,” Hicks said. “Every time you have a new start in life, you say, ‘This is it. This is going to be awesome.’
“Here, it’s actually starting to come to fruition, and it’s a nice feeling.”
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