The outlook for Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks’ fourth season was simple when he considered it in April: If he’s healthy, he’s productive. He only needed to stay healthy.
That fourth season is finished, and Hicks’ contract with the Eagles is expiring. Yet the question about whether Hicks can remain healthy has not gone away. Hicks is set to become a free agent in March, and he needs the Eagles – or any interested team – to value what they see when Hicks is on the field more than the alarming amount of time he’s not.
At 26, Hicks has played four NFL seasons and he’s missed time in three of them. He’s been sidelined for 21 regular season games for reasons ranging from a torn pectoral tendon to a ruptured Achilles tendon to an injured calf.
Hicks has the fifth most interceptions among NFL linebackers since he entered the league, he had a career-high three sacks this season, and he played every defensive snap during the team’s first nine games. But then the injury trend struck again with a calf injury that sidelined him for four weeks.
“Honestly, I have no clue,” Hicks said after the season when asked if teams will focus on his play more than his injury history. “I am optimistic. I think you turn on the tape and look, I think that’s really what matters. But it’s a funny league. You just don’t know. I can’t control that, so why focus on that?”
Hicks had become one of the Eagles’ core players since standing out as a rookie in 2015 after they drafted him with a third-round pick. He’s developed into a leader who is the defensive signal-caller when on the field. He’s taken to Philadelphia, becoming a husband and a father during his time with the Eagles. He also helped launch a wealth management firm headquartered in the area.
But Hicks understands that the NFL is a business, and this will be the first time he reaches free agency. He will see how the Eagles value him – and he might be left seeing how the league values him, too.
“We’ll see what happens,” Hicks said. “This place is home, and it is. Hopes and whatever I want doesn’t matter at the end of the day. You want to be somewhere where you’re wanted and you want to see the market. A lot of uncertainty.”
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Complicating Hicks’ pending free agency is that he did not take on the same role when he returned from injury in Week 16. The Eagles appeared to slow Hicks back into the lineup during the final two regular season games, although the pattern continued during the playoffs. Hicks still started every game, but Nigel Bradham was the every-down linebacker – not Hicks. It’s the same role Bradham played during the Super Bowl run.
This didn’t affect Hicks when the Eagles played in their base defense and nickel packages, but when they played a heavy dime with three safeties on the field, only one linebacker played. That player was Bradham. Hicks filled that role before the injury.
The Eagles used the package often in the postseason, which was why Hicks played only 36 percent of the defensive snaps against the Bears and 64 percent of the defensive snaps against the Saints. Hicks admitted that his expected role will factor into what he decides to do in free agency.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” Hicks said. “It’s something I’ve been able to do, I can do, I am. It’s obviously a part of [the decision]. I want to play.”
The Eagles haven’t commented on Hicks’ future. Coach Doug Pederson said in December that Hicks “has been a big part of our success here” and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said that same week that Hicks is an “important guy to our defense.” Both coaches were too locked into the Eagles’ late-season run to respond in depth to offseason questions.
The Eagles return Bradham, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Nate Gerry at linebacker. They already re-signed Paul Worrilow. LaRoy Reynolds and D.J. Alexander are already pending free agents. If Hicks were to leave, the team would be left without much proven high-level talent at the position.
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It’s not uncommon for a free agent coming off injury to a sign a one-year contract to try to restore his value. Hicks did not say if that was something he would agree to do because he did not know yet what the market would bear.
He’s confident with the way he played before the injury – both in showing the durability to play every snap during those first nine games and his production while he played. His calf injury usually requires 4-to-6 weeks from which to return, and he made it back in four. He said he thought the way he returned from the injury demonstrated that he’ll “do whatever I can to get back on the field.” (He also thought playing through his injury in 2017 contributed to his torn Achilles tendon.)
This is why Hicks is one of the offseason’s most intriguing questions for the Eagles. When he’s on the field, he’s one of their top defensive contributors. And he’s been productive in both a 4-3 defense and a 3-4 defense, so he’s versatile enough to transition to different schemes. But a reputation can be tough to overcome, and he must convince teams to consider what they see on the field more than the time he’s off it.
“It can be tough to shake, and it’s something I’ve battled since I came into the league,” Hicks said. “The more I focus on it, I think the more of a waste of time it is. Because at the end of the day, injuries are going to happen. The injury I had, the only way to avoid it was not to be playing hard. So when you get injured like that, what can you do? …Now, I understand the other side of it where people are saying it’s every year. But the more I focus on it, the more of a waste of time it is.”