Lake Forest, Ill.– The Chicago Bears 2021 season ended nearly a month ago, and as the franchise looks towards free agency, the Bears will have a number of decisions to make, including what to do regarding veteran defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. Signed as a free agent by the Bears in 2016, Hicks has spent the last six seasons being a focal point of the Bears defense, quickly becoming the backbone of one of the top units in the NFL.
Set to turn 33 years old halfway through the 2022 season, the Bears appear to be at a crossroads with Hicks. Should new general manager Ryan Poles look to extend Hicks or should the Bears let Hicks walk, letting the fan-favorite hit free agency? On the surface, the easy answer would be to let Hicks walk, choosing not to reinvest in an aging player.
With NFL free agency right around the corner, let’s take a look at what the Bears should do with Hicks.
Hicks Impact with the Bears
When former Bears GM Ryan Pace signed Hicks to a two-year deal in free agency in 2016, Hicks burst onto the scene quickly with seven sacks and 54 tackles. In 2017, the Bears opted to reward Hicks during the 2017 offseason, inking the defensive lineman to a four-year, $48M deal that would keep Hicks in Chicago through the end of the 2021 season. Over the few years, the Bears’ defense clearly performed at a higher level when Hicks was on the field, drawing double teams, allowing for guys like Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith to play freely and make impact plays. Hicks did make the Pro Bowl in 2018, starting 16 games and totaling 8.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and 16 quarterback hits. Around the NFL, Hicks may not be a household name to some but his impact with the Bears as a leader both on and off the field cannot be underestimated.
An important question to answer
What does Bears GM Ryan Poles value when constructing the Bears roster moving forward? Poles’ vision and philosophy include being able to build through the NFL Draft and have head coach Matt Eberflus continue to develop talent. Poles’ willingness to commit to building through the draft means the Bears are trying to get younger, rather than continue to invest in aging players. However, with just five draft picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, Poles will have to pick and choose wisely, knowing that if the Bears move on from Hicks, finding another defensive lineman who can immediately contribute could become a need.
What does bringing Hicks back entail?
Ultimately, whether the Bears opt to bring Hicks back will come down to two factors. First, can the Bears agree on a price for Hicks knowing that as he gets older, his ability to contribute could go down? Second, looking at Hicks’ injury history since 2019, would Poles really be ready to reinvest in a player who started just nine games in 2021? It’s a fair question to ask because Hicks missed time in 2019 with injuries while starting just 15 games in 2020. A likely contract extension for Hicks would be a short-term deal worth one or two years, with a maximum value of $20M with the ability to cut Hicks after the 2022 season. Essentially, Hicks proposed contract extension would be just a one-year deal that gives the Bears some future flexibility.
What does letting Hicks walk mean?
When discussing why Hicks shouldn’t return to the Bears in 2022, the discussion is simple. The Bears aren’t willing to invest in an aging and injury-prone defensive line. Furthermore, considering the current state of the Bears roster, the defense needs to get younger and not older, meaning letting Hicks walk would allow the Bears to begin overhauling the roster, investing more salary cap and draft resources into the offense. Losing Hicks wouldn’t be considered a blow to the defense considering his age and in a league driven by offense, Chicago could opt to invest in the offense rather than using the same resources to retain Hicks.
Knowing the Bears have an important roster decision to make with Hicks, Eberflus and Poles are ready to begin building a roster that’s more catered to their style, instead of continuing to invest in players from the Ryan Pace era. Considering his price tag, injury history, and age, it appears as if Hicks is likely on his way out of the Windy City after a phenomenal run that defined his career.