Secret Superstars 2014: Saints
In 2012, the New Orleans Saints’ first draft pick came in the third round. This was due to a 2011 trade with New England to move back into the first round for Alabama RB Mark Ingram, and penalties resulting from the Bounty Gate scandal.
With that third round 89th overall selection, the Saints took a chance on DT Akiem Hicks, who had an interesting pre-NFL story. He began his college career at Sacramento City College, became a highly rated junior college player, signed with LSU, but became ineligible due to recruiting violations.
He would go on to work at a DirecTV call center in Colorado before turning down a chance to play in the Canadian Football League, but agreeing to play for the University of Regina, located in Canada. Two years later, a great performance at the East-West Shrine Game helped his stock even more.
Hicks spent his rookie year on a defense led by first-year Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. This unit turned out to be historically porous, allowing the most yards in a single NFL season. Playing mostly interior tackle on a four-man defensive line, Hicks can hardly be blamed for that infamous ineptitude; he earned a +1.4 and +1.3 in Run Defense and Pass Rush while playing only 38.1% of the team’s defensive snaps.
He also forced a fumble in the Denver blowout game while it was still a competitive contest, and the only missed tackle he had was also in that game, after he had humorously tossed Broncos’ center Dan Koppen aside. There were some nicks and bruises along the way for Hicks (he injured his hand twice prior to the season, and missed the final game due to a knee injury), but he never became an injury concern.
First Half of 2013
In 2013 Payton returned, and Spagnuolo and his maligned 4-3 defense were gone in favor of Rob Ryan’s 3-4 scheme. On NO’s first defensive snap of the season, he beat Atlanta’s right tackle for a stop in run defense; he seemed to take to the new scheme immediately, picking up three other stops against RBs in the first two contests as well as generating a sack, a hit, and three hurries.
However, his production tapped off in the rest of the first half of the year. He could only muster a single hurry in the following seven games, recorded only one stop in Weeks 3 (vs. Cardinals) and 4 (vs. Miami) despite both games being New Orleans blowouts, and received four overall ‘red’ grades in this span, including the Dallas Sunday night football massacre.
Second Half of 2013
Hicks’ disruption returned in Week 11 vs. San Francisco, but it was his next game against the Falcons when he really stood out. He harassed Matt Ryan to the tune of two sacks, a hit and a hurry, all requiring him to beat offensive lineman, and added five stops in run defense, leading to him earning a spot in the Week 12 Secret Superstar piece.
The rest of the way he wasn’t perfect, earning his worst overall grade (-2.1) in the loss to the Rams, but still helped this defense redeem itself for the horrific 2012 effort. He would earn his best overall grades (+3.2) in two crucial games – the Week 16 game in Carolina that could’ve led to a division title had they won, and the divisional loss in Seattle.
In the end, Hicks played 67.4% of the defensive snaps, a significant increase from his rookie season. The player seen by some as a project coming out of a Canadian college managed to earn the eighth best run defense grade as a 3-4 DE and the third-best Run Stop Percentage in that group with 39 Stops (including all games, not just the regular season). Cameron Jordan currently gets most of the spotlight on the Saints’ DL, but Hicks is primed to join him if his production last year is any indication.
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