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.
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 CSNChicago.com’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.