Mike Dinovo/USA Today

Chicago Bears would be wise to lock up DL Akiem Hicks this off-season

The Chicago Bears should not wait to lock up DL Akiem Hicks, a 27-year-old who a breakout season last year and will command a lot of attention on the open market next year.

During the 2016 off-season, Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace focused mainly on defense early in free agency, bringing in ILBs Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman to anchor the front seven, along with signing DL Akiem Hicks.

While Freeman was a standout at linebacker, Hicks had arguably the biggest impact of the three big-name additions. 

Despite playing for his third team in five years, Hicks emerged as a dominant force in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s system. Chicago's front seven, particularly the defensive line, was battered by injuries last year but Hicks contributed consistently throughout the season.

"Up front on the D-line [Hicks] has been our most consistent and effective performer up front from start to finish,” Fangio said late in the season. “He’s one of the few guys we have who’s played every game and played a lot of plays. He’s had a very good year, his best year in the NFL by far, and I hope that he continues to grow."

Now is the time for the Bears to reward Hicks with a long-term deal and lock down the 27-year-old as he enters his prime. 

Hicks started all 16 games for the Bears in 2016, recording 7.0 sacks and 71 tackles on the year. He finished with 50 quarterback pressures and 37 defensive stops, per Pro Football Focus.

Hicks will now enter the second year of the two-year contract he signed last off-season and you have to imagine the Bears will attempt to lock him down.

Pace rewarded OLB Willie Young with a contract extension during training camp in 2016, citing that Young had earned his new deal.

We could see the same thing happen for Hicks, who has more than earned a new contract. But what is the market for a defensive end in a 3-4 defense?

The top two highest-paid 3-4 DEs are Muhammad Wilkerson and J.J. Watt. Although Hicks had a fantastic season, he's not on the same level as Wilkerson or Watt, at least not yet. 

Wilkerson signed a five-year deal worth $86 million, with $36 million guaranteed. Watt’s deal was six years at $100 million, with $51 million guaranteed. That's not a realistic price range for Hicks, whose original contract was for $10 million total, with $5 million guaranteed.

If he's extended, Hicks could get a deal similar to Derek Wolfe or Desmond Bryant. Wolfe signed a four-year deal worth $36.7 million in January last year and his 2016 season wasn’t as good as Hicks, as Wolfe recorded just 5.5 sacks.

Bryant received a five-year deal for $34 million in 2013, with $12 million in fully guaranteed money. His 6.0 sacks in 2015 were a career-high for the Cleveland Browns defensive end, but he missed the entire 2016 season with a torn pectoral.

A realistic expectation for Hicks would likely be a three-year deal worth roughly $30-$35 million with about $8-$10 million guaranteed. Pace is currently flush with cash and, other than WR Alshon Jeffery, there are no big-money players to re-sign off the current roster, which makes it an ideal time to extend Hicks, who would be in high demand next off-season if he has another strong year in 2017. 

By locking down Hicks now, the Bears could stabilize a key part of their front seven for many years to come without ever taking the risk of him signing elsewhere. 

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