For no reason, Bears coach Matt Nagy out of the blue made a point recently to tell Akiem Hicks how much he appreciated “the way he has handled this training camp.”
It had nothing to do with Hicks’ desire for a contract extension that compelled Nagy to massage his star defensive end. Nothing to do with any possible unhappiness or frustration he might be feeling. Maybe the mood just struck him.
“I mean, he has practiced hard. He’s being a great leader in meetings. He’s really been awesome,” Nagy said. “And for that I told him, ‘You know, sometimes we as coaches can always talk about the bad — whether it’s what you did wrong in a play or what we need to do here or there. And a lot of times we don’t give enough praise when we just take it for granted.’
“I told him, ‘Listen man, I love your leadership. I love the way you’re handling this summer and where you’re at and it’s really neat to see right now where you’re at.”
It’s good that Nagy knows where Hicks is at, because Hicks has been a mystery to the rest of us. The standout defensive end has been one of the Bears’ most publicly engaging players — not only available to reporters on a regular basis, but a willing participant who enjoys a good conversation about football and tells it like it is more often than most. For us, he was a go-to guy.
But not anymore. Hicks has taken a sudden, inexplicable heel-turn this season — refusing to fulfill any and all media responsibilities in defiance of the NFL’s media policies, and without explanation. It’s one thing when getting Khalil Mack to the media room is like pulling teeth — he’s disdained the process from the time he got here. But Hicks has done a 180 — from a good guy to a bad guy.
We know you don’t care about that. But Hicks has had a couple of curious episodes on the field as well during training camp. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said early in camp that Hicks, who is on the final year of a four-year $48 million contract, is looking for a contract extension.
On July 29, Hicks missed practice moments after coach Matt Nagy did not list him as injured. It later was called a foot injury. On Aug. 17, Hicks mysteriously left practice during warmups and did not return — with no explanation from Nagy. On Aug. 23, he arrived to practice 40 minutes late, again with no explanation.
So what’s wrong? Not a thing, Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace said. If Hicks is unhappy about his contract situation, they’re not seeing it.
“For me, Akiem has been in an unbelievable place,” Pace said. “How he’s been as a teammate; how he’s been in our building; the shape he’s in right now; the effort he’s playing with has been awesome. I think he’s gonna have a really big year, and we’re excited about that.”
So why did he leave practice last month?
“No update,” Nagy said at the time.
“That feels like six months ago to me,” Pace said Wednesday. “So I don’t even remember.”
Maybe there really is nothing to see here, but the Hicks situation bears watching as he goes into the final year of his contract at 31. Hicks still is the heart-and-soul of the Bears defense — ahead of Mack, linebacker Roquan Smith, nose tackle Eddie Goldman and safety Eddie Jackson. There’s a reason why Pace kept Hicks and cut cornerback Kyle Fuller to get out of a salary cap bind.
But if Pace wouldn’t splurge on 28-year-old Allen Robinson, the only extension Hicks is likely to get at this point will be at the Bears’ price — especially with with outside linebacker Robert Quinn and linebacker Danny Trevathan slowing down at 30 last season.
So Hicks likely is in the same position he’s been in for most of his NFL career — another prove-it year. Because no matter how much they love your leadership and how hard you work and how awesome you are in meetings, business is still business.