Saints’ Akiem Hicks makes big strides rapidly

In only his second NFL season and first year playing defensive end in the league, Akiem Hicks topped his fellow linemen in tackles, and he had more takedowns behind the line of scrimmage than all but two teammates.

The explanation behind such a performance is simple, according to Cameron Jordan, whose words are worth noting if solely because he was the lone defensive player the Saints sent to the Pro Bowl last year.

“Akiem is a monster,” said Jordan, who accompanied Hicks on Tuesday to a meet-and-greet event with schoolchildren at the NFL Youth Education Town Center in New Orleans. “What he did was just make himself an impact in every play. Whether the ball was coming his way or not, he enforced his will upon every (offensive) lineman that I saw.”

Statistical evidence certainly backs up Jordan’s assessment of Hicks, the third-round draft pick out of Canada’s Regina University in 2012.

After serving as a backup tackle on a defense that gave up the most yards in NFL history during his rookie campaign, Hicks moved to end, starting opposite Jordan in the system installed by first-year coordinator Rob Ryan. The switch netted more playing time for Hicks as a result of a preseason, year-ending chest injury to veteran Kenyon Coleman, who as of February had plans to retire.

Hicks flourished. His 4.5 quarterback sacks in the regular season trailed only Jordan’s 12.5 (fifth in the NFL) and linebacker Junior Galette’s 12 (sixth in the league), and Hicks celebrated more than one of them by stretching his arms out and wobbling his knees in a strange dance fans came to eagerly anticipate.

Hicks’ eight tackles for yardage losses were tied with linebacker David Hawthorne’s and were fewer only than the ones produced by Jordan and Galette. And Hicks’ 56 tackles (29 solo) were the most on a line that helped hold opponents to the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL.

The Saints’ defensive improvement was a turnaround that had been without precedent since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and that was a significant reason why the Saints won 12 of 18 games and reached the divisional round of the playoffs.

Hicks on Tuesday was reluctant to lionize the level at which he played last season, instead crediting his success to the attention teammates such as Jordan and Galette drew from opponents.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see those guys perform the way that they do,” Hicks said. “It definitely makes it easier on the defense as a whole when you have players coming off the edge with speed rushes and just playing well overall.”

He passed on a number of opportunities to comment on whether he believed his marked sophomore improvement foretold a Pro Bowl-caliber breakout in 2014.

“I think growth tends to be gradual,” Hicks said when asked if this was his time to command the headlines Jordan and Galette did in 2013. “I just hope I can continue on the path I’ve been on so far.”

But the 6-foot-4, 287-pound Jordan was much less reserved in his session with the media. First, he said the 6-foot-5, 324-pound Hicks was one of the few people he’s met that make him feel regular-sized.

Jordan joked, “Which makes regular people feel small.”

Then Jordan gave reporters what they couldn’t get out of Hicks.

“I think he’s definitely in a position to break out,” Jordan said of Hicks. “What’s crazy is he’s still raw. ... It’s exciting to see him come into his third year and ... worry about just creating that much more havoc in the backfield.”