Bears bolster front seven, sign DL Akiem Hicks to two-year deal


Bears bolster front seven, sign DL Akiem Hicks to two-year deal

Money always matters in matters of free agency but it is increasingly apparent that coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace are nothing if not salesmen.

First it was linebacker Danny Trevathan, who played for Fox in Denver and said that Fox was most definitely a major factor in his decision to choose the Bears on the first day of free agency. Then came Saturday’s signing of former Indianapolis linebacker Jerrell Freeman, whose impression of Fox came from joint Colts-Bears practice last August and carried through talks that concluded with a second new inside linebacker.

Now comes defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, a massive (6-5, 324 pounds) part of a very good New England Patriots defense and whom the Patriots wanted to re-sign. Hicks was drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft by the New Orleans Saints while Pace was with the Saints’ personnel department as director of pro scouting.

[MORE: Bears' free agents arrive with some quirks]

The Patriots understood Hicks’ wish to explore his options in his first opportunity to reach the open market and typically as players in that situation for the chance to match or top any serious offer to the four-year veteran of both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.

New England was no match, however, for Pace and the Bears, who landed Hicks with a two-year contract that cements in place a critical addition to a defense intent on taking a huge step from year one to two under Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio.

Need trumps best-available in free agency

While the successful drafting is based on securing best players available rather than over-drafting a player based on a need, free agency is precisely the opposite, where need is typically trump.

The Bears were among the NFL’s poorest at stopping the run, ranking 26th by giving up 4.5 yards per carry and 103 rushing first downs, tied for 25th. Part of problem traced to losing anticipated defensive starters Ego Ferguson, Ray McDonald and Jeremiah Ratliff for various reasons (Ferguson to knee surgery), and even rookie Eddie Goldman to injured reserve for game 16.

Accordingly, the Bears made Hicks a priority in their initial wave of targets in free agency. Hicks, No. 2 on’s ranking of interior defensive linemen (behind only Jaye Howard, who opted to remain with the Kansas City Chiefs for $6 million per year), was a stout part of a New England Patriots defense ranked ninth against the run.

Hicks, 26, was traded from New Orleans to the Patriots for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. He is regarded as an ascending player with significant upside after netting three sacks in 13 New England games last season and playing as an end in the 3-4 schemes with New Orleans and New England. His top sack total of 4.5 came in 2013 when the Saints finished 11-5 with the NFL’s No. 4 defense.

Building power base

Where once not all that long ago the Bears had no defensive linemen bigger than Ratliff’s 303 pounds, Hicks at one of the defensive end/tackle spots puts 324 pounds alongside Goldman’s 334. The Bears have Ferguson under contract for two more years in addition to undersized but productive and versatile Will Sutton.

And they have the 2016 draft, widely regarded as one of the best ever for defensive linemen.

The defenses of Lovie Smith utilized smaller defensive linemen tasked with penetration of one gap between two offensive linemen. The 3-4 of John Fox/Fangio is closer to a two-gap base system, anchored by a nose tackle and linemen capable of preventing blockers from reaching linebackers and second levels of the defense.

Like Goldman (4.5 sacks in ’15), Hicks is considered a pocket collapser.

Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?


Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?

Not all that long ago, back in the seemingly promising Dave Wannstedt days, something of an annual narrative began around the Bears. All too frequently since then it has been the refrain of more offseasons than not, including last year’s. And if there is a cause for very, very sobering realism in the wake of the heady wave of free-agency signings in the first days of the new league year, it lies in what has so often transpired to put the lie to that optimism.

The mantra then, and now, has been various iterations of, “If these three (or four, or six, or 12) things work out, the Bears are gonna be good this year.” Because the reality is that all those what-ifs seldom, if ever, all come to pass, whether because of injury, mis-evaluated abilities or whatever.

Look no further than this time last offseason, just considering the offense:

If Kevin White can come back from (another) injury, if Markus Wheaton flashes his Pittsburgh speed, if Dion Sims takes that next step from a promising Miami stint, if Kyle Long is back from his lower-body issues, if Cameron Meredith comes close to those 66 catches again, if Mike Glennon has the upside that led the GM to guarantee him $18.5 million, and hey, Victor Cruz, too, if… and so on.

And exactly zero of those “if’s” came to pass, with the result that John Fox and Dowell Loggains became idiots.

The point is not to a picker of nit or sayer of nay. But the fact is that a lot of the offseason moves and player development ALL need to come down in the plus-column for the Bears to be even as good as they were back in, say, 2015, when the offense had Martellus Bennett at tight end, Alshon Jeffery at wide receiver, Eddie Royal coming in at slot receiver (with 37 catches in an injury-shortened season), Kyle Long at his Pro-Bowl best, and Jay Cutler about to have the best full season of his career. And a new (proven) head coach and defensive coordinator, and an offensive coordinator with head-coaching talent.

All those things “worked” for a team that would wobble to a 6-10 year.

Now consider 2018:

The current top two wide receivers are both – both – coming off season-ending ACL injuries;

The incoming slot receiver has never had a season as reception-productive as the one (Kendall Wright) he is replacing (59) or as many as Royal had in just nine 2015 games (37);

The new tight end has never been a starter and has fewer career catches (63) than Bennett averaged (69) in three supremely disappointing Bears seasons;

The best offensive lineman (Long) is coming off missing essentially half of each of the past two seasons with injuries, and the co-best (Sitton) is gone from an offensive line that was middle of the pack last year and has high hopes for two linemen (Hroniss Grasu, Eric Kush) who’ve been largely backups, and a third (Jordan Morgan) who missed his rookie season with an injury;

And the quarterback (Trubisky) upon whom the franchise rests, who needs to overcome any so-called sophomore jinx and improve from a rookie level (77.8 passer rating) that was barely better than Cutler’s worst NFL season (76.8).

All of which sounds negative, but it really isn’t, just a perspective. Offseasons are about hope, but realism isn’t all bad, either.

In moving forward with Dion Sims, the Bears will keep a mix of skillsets at tight end

USA Today

In moving forward with Dion Sims, the Bears will keep a mix of skillsets at tight end

When the Bears signed Trey Burton to a four-year contract worth a reported $32 million (with $18 million of it guaranteed), the natural thought was this: So long, Dion Sims. But the Bears are all but certainly going to hang on to the 27-year-old tight end after his $4 million roster bonus became fully guaranteed on Friday, barring a trade. 

“We like Dion Sims, a well-rounded tight end,” general manager Ryan Pace said on Thursday. “We’re excited we got him.”

Cynically — or, perhaps, fairly — Pace’s comments could’ve been interpreted as part of a play to trade Sims, who signed a three-year contract in 2017. The Bears saw Sims as a strong run blocker with pass-catching upside, but still gave themselves an out after one year that would’ve netted $5.666 million in cap savings. 

Sims didn’t show any of that receiving upside last year, though, catching 15 of 29 targets (51 percent) for 180 yards with one touchdown. Crucially, the Bears have the cap space to keep Sims, even with the flurry of signings they’ve announced this week -- and Kyle Fuller's reported four-year, $56 million extension -- and contract extensions looming for Eddie Goldman and possibly Adrian Amos, too. 

So hanging on to Sims means the Bears value his contributions as a run blocker and are willing to shoulder a $6.3 million cap hit for him to primarily be used in that role. The Bears expect Shaheen to be their primary in-line tight end, with Burton and Daniel Brown, who signed a one-year contract Friday, the more pass-catching-oriented “move” guys in Matt Nagy’s offense. But Sims will still have a role as the Bears look to maximize their production from the tight end position. 

“I think we can use all our tight ends,” Pace said. “I think the Super Bowl champions are a recent example of that, of using a lot of tight ends. They’re all valuable weapons. They’re all a little different. I think they all complement each other. It fits together nicely.”