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2023 Buccaneers Free Agent Focus: Akiem Hicks

Twelfth-year veteran Akiem Hicks, who signed a one-year deal with the Bucs last June and made a clear impact against the run when healthy, is one of five defensive linemen from the 2022 roster set to hit free agency next week

Free Agent Focus Hicks

Akiem Hicks only played nine games in the last of his six outstanding seasons with the Chicago Bears, but when he was on the field he remained a difference-maker at the age of 32. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bears' defense was more effective against the run and the pass when Hicks was in the lineup. NGS notes that opposing running backs were hit an average of a half-yard sooner (0.9 to 1.4) and the pass rush had a significantly higher pressure rate from 2018 on with Hicks in the mix.

It's understandable, then, that when the former Regina standout became a free agent last offseason and the Bears did not try to bring him back the Bucs had interest. Tampa Bay did not bring back Ndamukong Suh, himself headed into his age-35 season, for a fourth year, and thus had a spot for a veteran interior lineman to play next to young Pro Bowler Vita Vea. Tampa Bay did draft defensive lineman Logan Hall with the 33rd overall pick in April, but wanted a proven plugger to help keep their run defense among the league's best, so they subsequently signed Hicks on June 1.

Just like Suh, who played in Tampa on three consecutive one-year deals, Hicks was only signed for the 2022 campaign, which means he's due to hit free agency again on March 15 absent a new deal (technically, Hicks's contract voided on February 20). Will he follow Suh's pattern and re-up at least one more, assuming the Buccaneers have interest? Hicks's season in Tampa was much like his last few in Chicago: hampered by injury but with clear burst of effectiveness when he was on the field. Whether the Bucs pursue a second year with the 12th-year veteran is complicated by the fact that five interior linemen from the Bucs' 2022 roster are potential unrestricted free agents, including Will Gholston and Rakeem Nunez-Roches. The only two players under contract in that position group are Vea and Hall.

Overall, the Buccaneers have 22 pending unrestricted free agents from last year's roster (not counting the retired Tom Brady), including eight defenders who logged at least 400 defensive snaps last year. Clearly, the Bucs have a lot to sort through between now and March 15, when the new league year begins and any of those 22 players who have not inked a new deal with the team become unrestricted free agents.

Roster turnover from season to season is a given in the NFL and it's certain that the Bucs won't be able to retain all of those potential free agents, but they will surely try to retain as much talent as possible, especially homegrown talent. And so, in the weeks leading up to the start of the new league year, we are going to look at 10 players who are currently poised to become unrestricted free agents in mid-March. This is the full schedule of our 2023 Free Agent Focus rundown:

February 15: WR Julio Jones

February 17: ILB Lavonte David

February 22: OLB Anthony Nelson

February 24: CB Jamel Dean

March 1: S Mike Edwards

March 3: DL Will Gholston

March 10: DL Akiem Hicks

March 14: S Logan Ryan

March 15: OLB Carl Nassib

This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming days. However, we finish this week with another one of those eight defenders who had big roles in 2022.

Player: Akiem Hicks

Position: Defensive Lineman

Age at the Start of the 2023 Season: 33

Experience: Entering 12th NFL season

How Acquired: Signed as a free agent in June of 2022

Previous Contract(s): Played first four seasons on the standard rookie contract after being selected in the third round of the 2012 draft by the New Orleans Saints (was traded to the New England Patriots during his fourth season). Signed a two-year contract with the Chicago Bears as an unrestricted free agent in 2016. In 2017, signed a renegotiated contract with the Bears that ran through the 2021 season.

Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 100 NFL Free Agents for 2023: Not listed.

2022 Performance: Hicks played in and started 11 games during the regular season. He was in the opening-day lineup next to Vea but suffered a foot injury in a Week Two win at New Orleans and missed the next six contests. He returned in Week Nine and started the last six games, plus the Bucs' lone playoff outing. Hicks was on the field for approximately 55% of the Bucs' defensive snaps in the 11 games he played, though that number would have been a bit higher if he hadn't been hurt early in Game Two or removed early in a meaningless Game 17 in Atlanta.

Hicks finished the season with 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, , one sack, four quarterback hits and three passes defensed. He was active in the Buccaneers' playoff loss to the Cowboys, recording three tackles and a tackle for loss and breaking up a pass.

Hicks's impact on the Bucs' run defense was clear. In the 11 games in which he played, the Buccaneers allowed 106.0 rushing yards and 0.63 rushing touchdowns per game and 4.2 yards per carry. In the other six contests, the Bucs allowed 148.0 rushing yards and 0.71 rushing touchdowns per game and 4.9 yards per carry.

Career Accomplishments: The New Orleans Saints drafted Hicks in the third round (89th overall) in 2012, making him the first (and still only) University of Regina player ever to his name called in the NFL Draft. After appearing in a reserve role as a rookie, Hicks started 30 games over the next two seasons for the Saints and contributed 6.5 sacks. He started the first three games of 2015, his fourth in New Orleans, before being traded to the New England Patriots. After finishing the season out in New England, Hicks became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Bears in 2016.

Hicks took his career to a new level in Chicago, starting all 48 games over the next three season and racking up 23.0 sacks and 53 quarterback hits. That culminated in his selection to the Pro Bowl at the end of the 2018 season, in which he filled up a stat line with 55 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and five passes defensed. Injuries forced him to miss 18 games over the next three seasons but he still added eight more sacks in that span.

In all, Hicks has played in 149 regular season games with 121 starts, accumulating 409 tackles, 75 tackles for loss, 41.5 sacks, 115 QB hits, six forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and 12 passes defensed. In seven postseason games (five starts), he has another 23 tackles, 0.5 sacks and four QB hits.

Other Potential Free Agent Defensive Lineman: Javon Hargrave (Eagles), Fletcher Cox (Eagles), Dalvin Tomlinson (Vikings), David Onyemata (Saints), Sheldon Rankins (Jets), Daron Payne (Commanders), Taven Bryan (Browns), Jerry Tillery (Raiders), Dre'Mont Jones (Broncos), Zach Allen (Cardinals), Larry Ogunjobi (Steelers), Matt Ioannidis (Panthers), Morgan Fox (Chargers), A'Shawn Robinson (Rams), Poona Ford (Seahawks), Shy Tuttle (Saints), Chris Wormley (Steelers), Derrick Nnadi (Chiefs)

Top Defensive Line Prospects in 2023 NFL Draft: Jalen Carter (Georgia), Bryan Bresee (Clemson), Siaki Ika (Baylor), Calijah Kancey (Pittsburgh), Mazi Smith (Michigan), Karl Brooks (Bowling Green), Moro Ojomo (Texas), Keeanu Benton (Wisconsin), Keondre Coburn (Texas), Jer'Zhan Newton (Illinois), Zacch Pickens (South Carolina), Gervon Dexter (Florida), Byron Young (Alabama), Nesta Jade Silver (Arizona State), Tyler Lacy (Oklahoma State), Darius Robinson (Missouri)

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