Jordan Hicks said he “absolutely” will be ready for the Eagles’ Sept. 10 season opener at Washington.
“This thing is minor. You know I’m good,” Hicks said after observing the joint practice Tuesday between the Eagles and the Dolphins. Hicks left Monday’s joint practice with what a source close to the situation has described as a minor groin strain.
So, for the second time this summer, people who understood what makes the Eagles’ defense tick were allowed to exhale. The first such occasion came at the end of June, when word surfaced that the Eagles’ middle linebacker had suffered a broken hand, slipping on a swimming pool deck in Greece on his honeymoon. This injury was a source of numerous locker room jokes, and a minor impediment for the first week or so of training camp. Then it was forgotten.
The list of irreplaceable Eagles is short. On offense, there is quarterback Carson Wentz, obviously, and left tackle Jason Peters, probably. Defensively, there is Hicks and there is Malcolm Jenkins, the two guys who set up the front and the back ends, and then, Fletcher Cox, who is the team’s most dominant player, but the difference between a dominant defensive tackle and a decent one isn’t always a big factor in whether a team wins or loses.
Two things about Hicks: 1. He’s really, really good, not just at tackling and covering, but also at functioning as an extension of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and 2. The Eagles don’t have any other linebackers who can do the things Hicks can do.
Tuesday, we spoke with Najee Goode, Joe Walker and Don Cherry, three guys who would be in line to play middle linebacker right now if Hicks could not. We asked each of them if he would feel disrespected, should someone say Hicks was irreplaceable. Not one of them said yes, he would.
“No, no, no. He’s a great player,” Goode said. “Jordan’s my dawg … He’s got a knack for the ball … That’s something he came in here doing as a rookie [in 2015].”
Hicks played in only eight games, starting five, before suffering a season-ending chest injury as a third-round rookie in 2015, but he intercepted two passes, forced one fumble and recovered three more. Last season his five interceptions led all NFL linebackers.
“He’s the quarterback of the defense, he’s the head of the ship when it comes to making calls and getting guys lined up – guys play off of his voice, his calls and his checks. He understands the position, he’s a leader, he’s a natural at the linebacker position,” said Stephen Tulloch, the 11-year veteran who finished his career last season backing up Hicks. Tulloch has been observing the joint practices as a visitor.
“Certainly I think Jordan raises the bar at the middle linebacker position,” Eagles linebackers coach Ken Flajole said recently. “The thing I was happy to see him do last year was, I think everybody had a little injury bug tag on him, and I think he’s put that to rest.”
Hicks started all 16 games in 2016 and played 95 percent of the defensive snaps. Before that, his rookie year injury seemed to continue a pattern that began at Texas with Achilles’, hip and foot injuries. The broken-hand honeymoon might have started fans worrying again, but Flajole said it didn’t bother him.
“I said, ‘Well, we’re going to keep you away from swimming pools.’ I talked to him as soon as I got the word,” Flajole said. “It could have happened to any of us. You slip on a pool surface and you put your hand down to brace yourself and the hand breaks. “
Tulloch , who suffered just one injury in 11 years that caused him to miss games, said: “Football is so physical, but he does a good job of taking care of himself,” which is the only variable Hicks can control.
Cherry is an undrafted former Villanova star who spent much of last season on the Eagles’ practice squad. Cherry signed originally with the Bears, who released him as 2016 training camps were opening. He signed here without having done any of the spring work in Schwartz’s scheme the other rookies had managed.
“Jordan was an amazing influence on me; I got here a day before camp, got thrown into the fire here as the MIKE, making all the calls, having to learn the playbook, basically, in one night. Jordan was the guy that, when I needed someone the most, he was there for me, so as long as he’s here, I’ll always be there for him,” Cherry said.
Hicks’ role as a leader is particularly noteworthy in that at 25, he is all of 27 months older than Cherry.
“His moxie, his calmness in the game, the way he takes control – he’s a great leader,” Cherry said.
Walker said Hicks is “smart, he’s physically talented; I think [being tagged irreplaceable] is just a compliment to him.”
It’s not that the guys behind Hicks lack confidence. Goode, a sixth-year veteran, thinks he could keep the ship afloat if he had to, even if he knows he isn’t Hicks.
“You gotta be a great communicator. And you gotta be able to keep the guys ‘chill’ and get the guys set up. I take a lot of pride in that,” Goode said. “It’s fun being the MIKE. It’s fun being the leader, per se, as far as the LBs. That’s something I’ve done before and I definitely can do it again.”
But Goode has never intercepted a pass or forced a fumble, in 48 NFL games. Elias Sports Bureau says Hicks is the first NFL linebacker to produce 11 or or more takeaways in his first 24 games since Steelers Hall of Famer Jack Ham did it in 1971.
“He does have great production on the ball,” Flajole said. “But that’s more because I think he’s just a bright guy. He gets it. He studies the game. He understands what offenses are trying to get done by formation, and if that gives him an edge that some guys don’t have, that may be it.
“I’d like to just tell you it’s all coaching, but it’s not. What he’s accomplished is because of his hard work.”