By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) – The chance to climb back to .500 entering the bye week is the leading motivation for defensive lineman Akiem Hicks as he travels with the Bears to New Orleans for Sunday's game.
Hicks is working with a Bears defense playing its best football in three seasons under coach John Fox, a group establishing a strong bond in the locker room and revealing chemistry on the field. It's a matter of pride for this bunch.
But don't be mistaken, Sunday at the Superdome is still deeply personal for Hicks too.
Two years ago, Hicks was traded away by the Saints, who gave up on him ever becoming an impactful pass rusher by sending him to the Patriots for reserve tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.
On Sunday, Hicks will return to the Superdome playing at an All-Pro level that the Saints didn't think he could reach.
"I always want to be the best at whatever I do," Hicks said. "For me, being respected as one of the better players at my position means a lot to me. I'll do whatever it takes in order to get to that position."
Bears general manager Ryan Pace and director of player personnel Josh Lucas were part of the Saints front office that brought Hicks in to New Orleans with a third-round pick in 2012. Hicks went to LSU as a major recruit but never played a down there. He transferred to the University of Regina in Canada and carved his path to the NFL. Though there was uncertainty with his draft stock, the Saints had belief back then.
For Pace, Lucas and the Bears brass, the belief remained that Hicks could evolve from run stuffer to pass rusher. They signed him to a two-year deal during the 2016 offseason and watched him rack up 36 tackles and seven sacks last season.
Hicks was signed to a major extension in September, a four-year deal worth up to $48 million, with $30 million of that guaranteed.
"Paying him was definitely a great decision," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He's a stud inside."
Since signing the deal, Hicks has evolved even further. He's now becoming a dominant pass rusher in Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense, which desperately needed a player of his caliber up front.
Hicks already has 18 tackles and six sacks this season and is looking like one of the NFL's premier defensive linemen.
"He has just grown as a player through his experiences," Fangio said. "He didn't have a great experience in New Orleans, went up to New England, played out the season and did OK there. But saw a potential that this guy could be a good player.
"He does a great job getting his body in shape, takes care of himself. He's a big, powerful guy that's learning how to play the game better."
Hicks credits changes to his offseason work as part of his boost in production. He goes through rigorous training to stay in great shape, even at 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds. Hicks is a monster of a man wrecking through offensive lines.
During the offseason, Hicks and leaders on the Bears defense convened and spoke of what they could become. The prevailing hope was that it could be a unit feared by quarterbacks. Hicks is the centerpiece of that defensive identity.
On Sunday, Hicks will look to strike fear into Drew Brees and the Saints, a team that didn't believe he could become this.
The Bears saw the potential in Hicks, identifying a talented pass rusher and a force for their budding defense. For that, he's grateful.
"I can't even put a value on that," he said. "It's not monetary whatsoever. It's just having a home, having an organization believe in you and say that (they) want you to be here for the long-term. Whatever the paycheck says, it just means a lot.
"I'm happy to be here, and I was happy to be here on the first deal they signed me to. Just the fact that Ryan Pace came and sought me to be a part of this organization, it will mean a lot to me for a long time."
Injury report: Bears guard Kyle Long returned to practice Thursday a day after being held out for maintenance on his surgically repaired ankle. Receiver Markus Wheaton (groin), defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris (hamstring), linebacker John Timu (ankle/knee) and defensive back Sherrick McManis (hamstring) didn't practice, while running back Benny Cunningham (hamstring) and offensive lineman Hroniss Grasu (hand) were limited.
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