Well, this was unexpected. I had a perfectly fun Grinding the Tape ready for y’all on new Bucs wide receiver Russell Gage. I sent out tweets about it with some of the clips I was most excited to share. Then the Bucs had to go and flip the script on all of us by signing free agent defensive tackle Akiem Hicks to a one-year deal worth up to $10 million.
Hicks represents an interesting gamble for the Bucs. While talented, he has been beleaguered by injuries over the past several years, missing 20 of 49 games over the past three seasons. This is a far cry from Ndamukong Suh who has built a reputation as an iron-man in the league.
However, what Hicks may lack in durability he more than makes up for in pass rush ability. He has racked up 40.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, six fumbles recovered, and nine passes defensed over 110 starts across 10 seasons.
Hicks As A Pass Rusher
But moving beyond the traditional box score let’s look at Hicks’ pass rush on a snap-to-snap basis. Recently, I went in depth on pressure percentages and conversion rates when predicting sack totals for Bucs pass rushers. Looking at the pressure rate for Hicks over his past three seasons and he has held steady at just a couple ticks above 9%. That puts him in the company of guys like Fletcher Cox, Dexter Lawrence and Grady Jarrett from a production standpoint. And it represents an upgrade over Suh who has maintained a pressure rate of 7.7% over the past three seasons.
What does that pressure look like? Let’s take a look.
With any good pass rusher their skill set usually starts with their first step. And Hicks (No. 96) has an electric one, even at 32 years old and after his history of injuries. Watch him explode off the line both vertically and laterally on this play against the Rams.
No pass rusher has any shot at affecting Stafford on this bubble screen. But I don’t care about that. This highlights so well Hicks’ burst off the line. In watching him it became apparent his quickness can often surprise offensive linemen.
Here is one more against the Rams. I decided not to add a slow-motion effect so you can see in real time how quick Hicks can jump off the snap. In this case it was so fast Rams center Brian Allen had no choice but to bear hug Hicks to keep him from blowing up the inside of the pocket.
Setting Up Pass Rush Angles
The most fun part of watching Hicks work for me was seeing him set up offensive linemen to give him favorable pass rush angles. He doesn’t operate with a ton of pass rush moves. He has a good long-arm and a decent swim. Every once in a while he will flash a dip. But he doesn’t need a ton of moves because he creates angles that allow him to blow by blockers because they can’t square him up properly. Watch as he does just that against the Vikings.
As Hicks makes his way up-field he starts to torque his body laterally. The guard attempts to mirror him and in doing so opens up a hole to the inside. Hicks exploits this hole by crossing the guard’s face and crashing in on Kirk Cousins. He ultimately is able to impact Cousins’ throw causing an incompletion and a fourth down.
To be able to accomplish this Hicks shows a great deal of hip flexibility. To contour his body the way he does he is working across several planes of movement that are just very difficult for interior offensive linemen to match. He has to start with lateral dexterity to set up the move and finish with burst and acceleration to take advantage of the window. It’s really impressive.
Here you see it again when he uses this wide swim move right from the jump. In executing Hicks has put himself on the center’s hip. That’s not exactly ideal as a blocker. Lucky for the center the right guard is able to help and slow Hicks from getting to Cousins before the throw. Now imagine if Alec Ogeltree (No. 44) had maintained his original rush path. The right guard would have had to engage him instead, and the center would have had no help on Hicks.
Hicks is able to set up these altered pass rush lanes for himself because blockers have to respect his bull rush. With the aforementioned burst off the line, he able to convert speed to power and just bully linemen who lack a strong anchor.
Nothing fancy here. Just physical domination. Hicks gets off the line quick, gets into the right guard’s chest with leverage, and drives him straight into Joe Burrow.
Here are two more against the Rams.
I would say this is Hicks’ preferred way of winning and the rest of his game grows from the bull rush. And despite injuries to his right ankle, knee, hamstring, and groin over the years the Bucs should expect him to still be able to drive blockers backwards.
Pass Rush Arsenal
Now I mentioned earlier Hicks does not rely on pass rush moves as much as others might. It’s not that he isn’t a technician. I would argue the opposite. He is constantly setting up blockers. He just uses his athleticism to do it rather than a bunch of moves. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve. Earlier you saw the swim. Here are two more moves he will flash.
Here against Cincinnati he uses a long arm with a solid punch to drive the guard back and towards the outside. This allows Hicks to come across his face with a direct line to Burrow on an inside path.
Here he wins with a simple but effective dip-and-rip. At first, I thought it might be just a rip move, but he swipes the guard’s hands away and dips underneath the block. Hicks rips his right arm upwards to clear the guard and get to the quarterback, turning the corner with conviction.
Hicks Against Double Teams
Double teams are difficult for any pass rusher. Most of the time when two blockers have committed themselves to stopping you from moving forward it is going to happen. However, the best interior rushers find a way to still impact the play. And that’s exactly what Hicks has shown he can do.
Hicks is really the driving force on this play. His burst off the line forces the guard to help the center. Even with the help Hicks is able to drive both players back into Burrows grill. It doing so, he removes the guard from being able to pick up Ogeltree on the delayed blitz. The back tries to, but Ogeltree is able to sidestep him and arrive at Burrow just as he is throwing. The deflected pass results in an interception.
Crosses the guard. Drives the center back. Affects the throw. Textbook.
I’ll leave this section with just two more clips with no analysis. It’s just fun to watch Hicks work and bring down passers.
Hicks In Run Defense
With the loss of Suh, the Bucs lose a player who has graded well as a run defender over the years. Will Hicks be able to replace that level of production? I believe he will. As I detailed on an earlier installment of this series, last year Suh’s run defense had begun to slip. I attribute this to his age catching up with him and his athleticism waning. This caused him to have to cheat in some areas, leaving him out of position to make plays. This was especially evident on outside zone runs.
Hicks still shows he has the athleticism to defend these types of runs and more. Despite the injuries, his age, and the fact that he is a big tackle at 335 pounds, Hicks still moves well.
Watch as Hicks moves down the line with speed and suddenness. He is able to meet the ballcarrier quickly for a minimal gain. This will play well with Bucs head coach Todd Bowles.
On this one he helps seal the edge and force the runner back to the inside where he has help to stop the play.
And it’s not just zone runs that he is effective against either. Watch as Hicks uses his size and power to stone the guard trying to push him back and to his right. Then he flashes the lateral agility to move with speed back to his left to engage the play at the attack point. In doing so he forces the pulling tight end to try and block him instead of the second-level defender he should have been hunting for. That allows the linebacker to come clean and make the tackle.
What To Expect
This signing is exactly what many Bucs fans have been clamoring for. It’s a sign of Tampa Bay being “all-in.” At this stage in his career, Hicks’ tape back up his PFF numbers. PFF gave Hicks a 72.3 overall grade last year. By comparison, Suh earned a 49.4 overall grade.
On a per snap basis Hicks is still an extremely talented player who can give the Bucs’ pass rush an element it was missing last year. Namely, a consistently effective interior rusher to pair with Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea.
The question is how many snaps can the team reasonably expect out of a player who missed half of last season due to injury and will be 33 years old by the end of the season? With the addition of rookie Logan Hall, I hope the Bucs use Hicks in a strong rotation that limits his snap count to around 50%. This will hopefully help mitigate his injury risk while also keeping him fresh and effective.
Between Hall, Vea, and Will Gholston the team has enough quality interior linemen where the Bucs should not have to lean on Hicks to be a +50 snap/game player. If he can stay healthy look for Hicks to help elevate Tampa Bay’s pass rush to new heights in 2022.