Do you remember where you were when the Eagles drafted Jordan Hicks? Do you remember how you felt about the Eagles selecting an inside linebacker from Texas with an injury history? Odds are, in the subsequent six months, you don't feel that way anymore.
At the time, head coach Chip Kelly and the Eagles selecting Hicks made very little short-term sense. After trading away the franchise's all-time leading rusher for Kiko Alonso to pair with Mychal Kendricks, the middle of the defense seemed not only set, but stacked. Hicks became the "best player available" mantra personified. He also unwittingly became the next song for the nauseating chorus of those who thought Kelly was only going after injured guys.
But things in the NFL rarely pan out the way we expect, and now Hicks - recently an afterthought at inside linebacker - could very well be the first Eagles player ever named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Check out the list of past winners: Sheldon Richardson. Luke Keuchley. Von Miller. Ndamukong Suh. Unlike several recent Offensive Rookies of the Year, the guys on defense seem to have more staying power in the league. Of the last ten winners, only Shawne Merriman and Patrick Willis are out of the league. And most others, like Suh, Miller and Keuchley, are legitimate stars.
How good are Hicks' odds? Let's put it this way - the numbers look promising. But it's going to be tough.
Jordan Hicks vs. the competition
Like awards in any industry, Defensive Rookie of the Year is given as much on merit as reputation. The last winner of the DRoY award who wasn't picked in the first round was DeMeco Ryans in 2006, and he went 33rd overall. So to break this trend, he'll have to beat out guys like the Vikings' Eric Kendricks and Stephone Anthony of the Saints.
Here's how Hicks stacks up against the other top rookies through Week 7:
|Jordan Hicks||7||4||394 (75.8%)||43||37||1||1||1||3|
|Eric Kendricks||6||3||244 (61.5%)||35||32||4||0||0||0|
|Stephone Anthony||7||7||451 (94.9%)||45||32||1||1||0||0|
|Landon Collins||7||7||508 (98.6%)||42||32||0||1||0||0|
If it ends up being between these four, the race will essentially boil down to tackles versus sacks. There are no stud corners who are wowing the league with big interception numbers, so that's off the table. And right now, Kendricks has four sacks, which is tied with Saints linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha (who is a candidate in his own right) for the most sacks among rookies.
But Hicks leads all 'backers in tackles, is tied for the lead in picks, and also is the only one of the bunch with a forced fumble or fumble recoveries. And for what it's worth, Hicks grades out as Pro Football Focus' 11st-best inside linebacker. That's not rookies, that's the entire league.
Jordan Hicks vs. the ghosts of linebackers past
Okay, so Hicks is definitely in the conversation. But how does his performance--including his projected stats--compare to those who have won in previous years? To look behind us, we'll first need to project forward.
If we project Hicks over a full 16 game season based on his numbers through seven games, he's projected to finish with 98 total tackles (84 solo), two sacks and two interceptions. But keep in mind that, in Week 1, Hicks didn't play a single snap on defense. So if we take his first six games and project those out through 16 games, we can compare those numbers to previous winners to get an idea of where he might end up:
* This is obviously not going to happen.
This puts Hicks in a precarious spot. If he finished with stats similar to this, he simply won't have the tackle numbers to put him in the same class as some of these other guys. Interestingly, though, Hicks could easily become only the third defender in NFL history to record 100 tackles, three fumble recoveries and an interception in their rookie season. And one of those was Keuchley in 2012.
To be fair to Hicks (and all these young players), projections only get you so far. Hicks could very well finish the season with 108 tackles, but would anyone be surprised to see him get more? Hicks has 36 tackles since Week 3, including two ten tackle performances. None of the other rookies we've compared have done this.
Hicks' case is also hurt by depth. At this point in the season he is pretty clearly playing like the team's best linebacker, but the Eagles have three other quality inside linebackers. When everyone's healthy, will Kiko Alonso or Mychal Kendricks cut into Hicks' snaps? The rookie has clearly shown that the stage isn't too big, but the coaches may simply want to spell him - or want to get a veteran in there, period.
The final verdict
The fact that there is even a debate for Hicks as Defensive Player of the Year is a testament to him. There was plenty of confusion over the pick (check out the comments section!) but it didn't take long for that confusion to dissipate. Through six games, Hicks has proven himself to be among the best linebackers in the entire NFL. That's no small feat for a third-round rookie.
But will he win the award? Unless his tackle numbers go up, and unless he pulls of a few more impressive and athletic plays like he did in the Jets game, his odds aren't great. Guys like Eric Kendricks will have the sack numbers, and in a class of a bunch of pretty good linebackers and guys buried on the depth chart, that might make the difference.
But given everything Hicks has done to this point, you're counting him out at your own risk.