If there was one trade the New Orleans Saints would probably like to have back in the past decade, it was the one involving Akiem Hicks. Looking back now, they officially traded one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL for a backup tight end. Proof positive that for all their success, the organization isn’t immune from making catastrophic roster decisions.
The origins of that deal began in 2015. New Orleans, dissatisfied after a defensive regression the year before, chose to switch schemes from a 3-4 under Rob Ryan to a 4-3 alignment under Dennis Allen. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Hicks. He was more than capable of playing defensive tackle in such an alignment. The problem was the Saints didn’t have the wherewithal to keep him there.
Instead, they decided to move him to defensive end. A position that required speed, quickness, and finesse. Three things he knew he didn’t have in great abundance. Hicks realized the moment he was told about the change that they were making a mistake. However, instead of raising a fuss he decided to be a good soldier and try the best he could to make it work.
Predictably he struggled to start the year and was eventually benched. This led to heated exchanges with head coach Sean Payton and by the start of October, the Saints chose to move on by sending him to the Patriots.
Jonathan Vilma knew Saints couldn’t see Akiem Hicks value
One man who recognized Hicks’ talent right away was former three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, Jonathan Vilma. He took the young defensive lineman under his wing in 2012 after the draft. Through him, Hicks learned how to conduct himself as a professional. Sadly, Vilma told Dan Pompei of The Athletic that the Saints coaches had no clue what they had.
“In our defense at the time, they were trying to put him on an edge and be more of a speed rusher as opposed to using leverage and hands and power,” Vilma said. “That wasn’t really his thing. It was frustrating. I’m like, this is silly. I loved when he would bull rush. I would say, ‘Just do what you do best. We’ll figure it out with the coaches.’”
One can imagine if Vilma had been there in 2015, he would’ve done everything he could to stop the Saints from making the mistake of trading him. He’d been gone for over a year by that point though and was transitioning to his new job at ESPN. All he can do is marvel at Hicks’ maturation.
“…Now that he’s been able to refine his power game, it’s almost unfair when you watch him go one on one versus these centers or guards who are smaller guys,” said Vilma, now an ESPN analyst. “They can’t keep up. I shoot him text messages all the time, messing with him about how he’s literally manhandling grown men.”
New Orleans must wonder if things might’ve been different last season if Hicks had been on the roster. Though their defense was strong in the regular season, they managed to sack Jared Goff in the NFC championship just once. Hicks could’ve been a huge difference in that game.