Return Of Akiem Hicks Would Be A Boost For Bears

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- What would the return of Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks mean to the Bears defense? There's no understating it.

"We all know what a game-wrecker he is when he’s in there," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He changes a game."

Hicks returned to practice Sunday afternoon for the first time since he suffered a left elbow injury during the Bears' loss to the Raiders in London on Oct. 6. It marked the first step toward him potentially being activated off injured reserve for the remainder of the season. 

The Bears expect to get Hicks back on their defensive front when they visit the Packers on Dec. 15, the soonest he's eligible to return.

"You play this sport and you know that it’s violent and rough and they say there’s a 100-percent injury rate," Hicks said. "I always felt I was above that. I never really had to really experience some of the things that teammates of mine have experienced or opponents of mine have experienced. Yeah, it was hard on me.

"If I can get my body back to a place where I can compete at a high level, there’s nothing that will stop me from getting on the field."

Hicks could be returning to the Bears (6-6) amid a last-ditch playoff push or at the end of a disappointing season, depending how their game against the Cowboys (6-6) goes at Soldier Field on Thursday night. One more loss would prove to be the final blow to the Bears' already-bleak playoff hopes.

Whether the Bears are still in the hunt or mathematically eliminated, the presence of Hicks on the defensive front should allow general manager Ryan Pace and his front office to gain a clearer picture of their defense at full strength.

Should the Bears lock in outside linebacker Leonard Floyd on a second contract? Is Nick Kwiatkoski a viable starter at inside linebacker? What's the potential of defensive linemen Nick Williams, Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols? 

Hicks as a talent who helps elevate the Bears defensively, which can help Pace more accurately answer the questions that he faces.

"You know he's a great run defender," nose tackle Eddie Goldman said. "When he's on the field, you don't want to run at him. Pass game, they double-team him. They get four hands on him. That opens up rushes for Khalil (Mack), me, Roy, Nick."

For Floyd, having Hicks up front means more openings to attack the quarterback. As the Bears have described Floyd's value in potential more than production, Hicks returning represents an chance to help change that narrative. 

Floyd is fighting for a future with the Bears beyond his fifth and final year of contract in 2020.

"It's another guy that offenses have to prepare for and they got to be aware of," Floyd said of Hicks. "That helps the defense."

The Bears rank fourth in the NFL in scoring defense at 17.4 points per game despite having Hicks for only four of their 12 games this season. But after leading the league in takeaways last season, they have only 16 in 2019, which ranks 13th. The Bears also have 28 sacks, which ranks 19th.

Star pass rusher Khalil Mack has just two sacks in the seven games since Hicks suffered his elbow injury. Floyd has one sack from the opposite end of Mack during that stretch, with opposing offenses focusing their pass blocking on containing the edge rushers. Teams must respect Hicks when he's rushing in a way they don't his backups.

When Hicks earned Pro Bowl recognition last January, the Bears saw it as an honor long overdue instead of a breakthrough. That's because they know well what Hicks means to them.

"He's definitely underrated," Goldman said. "He's up top tier in my eyes. He's such a force. It's like, as a coach preparing for him, you have to have a game plan for him. Players like him, you have to put him in the top tier."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.