“Stay humble,” his mother told him.
Her name is Kelly Justice, and she raised her two kids as a single parent. Her daughter’s name was Taylor; her son’s name was Jordan.
He said it was the best advice he had ever received—and he received it more than a few times, as he grew up. Through his high school career, as a Butkus Award winner, Gatorade Player of the Year, USA Today All-American—stay humble. Through his college career, which included recognition as a 2014 Bednarik Award semifinalist and an All-Academic Big-12 player twice—stay humble. And through his young professional football career, during which he snagged a starting gig as a rookie, learned two new defenses, and flirted with a couple of records, Jordan Hicks has done nothing but stay humble.
Hicks was drafted by the blaze of glory that was the Kelly takeover of 2015. After “addressing” needs at thin positions with first-round WR Nelson Agholor and second-round CB Eric Rowe, renowned SPARQ-disciple Chip Kelly picked the Texas product with his third-round selection. Hicks had just posted agility scores at the NFL Combine that ranked among the Top-10 for linebackers over the past decade.
Things weren’t all sunshine and daisies, of course—it’s Philadelphia. It can’t always be sunny.
Chip, #InWhomWeOnceHadTrust, had just sent RB LeSean McCoy to the Bills for LB Kiko Alonso. On a roster with incumbents Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans, Billy Davis’ 3-4 scheme didn’t have room for three interior linebackers, let alone four.
As OTAs rolled around in 2015, Jordan Hicks was expected to be a big contributor...on special teams. Eagles Insider Bo Wolf reported that Hicks needed to establish himself among the other depth LBs, like Najee Goode, Brad Jones, and Emmanuel Acho, before pushing for playing time behind Alonso, Ryans, and Kendricks.
Even Jordan knew that his crack at starting was further down the road. When Hicks was first drafted, he was asked what he anticipated, entering a LB room with experience and talent like Philadelphia’s:
“Something special—obviously something special. I’m a competitive person. I want to come in and compete, but I respect them, and I can’t wait to get in there and just learn. I enjoy learning this game—I love this game—and that’s what I’m excited to do: Get around these people who have been there, done that, and just take as much, absorb as much from them, as possible.”
Jordan’s strength was always the behind-the-scenes aspects of the game. Staffers and coaches at Texas couldn’t say enough about his work ethic, in both the film and weight rooms. It takes a special passion to return from a hip injury in 2012, only to tear an Achilles in 2013, and bounce back from that, too.
The phrase “football guy” followed Hicks wherever he went. After his rookie OTAs, then-defensive coordinator Billy Davis called him “extremely athletic, intelligent” and of course, noted that he “works extremely hard in the weight room.”
His love for the game translates into his on-field technique and production. The undersized Jordan Hicks always had a knack for sliding by and slipping off blocks he had no business beating. His tape is littered with plays that make you suspect he has the opposing QB’s frequency in his ear. The same words that Kelly and Davis threw around Hicks in 2015 pepper Sunday afternoon broadcasts today: Instinctual. Smart. Aware.
But if you ask Jordan about his football IQ and work ethic, he’s quick to credit one of his first coaches: his high school defensive coordinator, Carlton Gray. “He taught me the game. When anyone says that I’m a smart player, it’s because of his help.”
It took Jordan Hicks precisely two weeks to get on an NFL field.
He didn’t just break the Alonso/Kendricks/Ryans logjam on his own. Like many players who exceed expectations, fortune smiled on him with an opportunity—and he capitalized. After re-aggravations to Kendricks’ hamstring and Alonso’s ACL sidelined them, a season full of special teams contributions warped through the wormhole of “next man up.” Philadelphia’s third-round selection, widely perceived as a risky allocation of valuable resources at a stacked position, was on Lincoln Financial Field. In Week 2. Opposite division rival Tony Romo.
You probably know what happens next.
Hicks burst onto the scene with a strip sack of Romo—and a precursor of things to come. Over his 24 career games played, Hicks wouldn’t force another fumble—but he would generate 7 INTs, tied with Carolina’s All-Pro LB Thomas Davis (who amassed them over 32 games, 8 more than Hicks) for the best number among linebackers in the past two seasons. Hicks led all linebackers with 5 INTs in 2016, and is one of 5 NFL linebackers to post at least 7 INTs across his first two seasons.
Hicks would go on to recover 4 fumbles across his 24 games as well, including a three-game streak in 2015. That’s a total of 11 takeaways over his first 24 games as a pro. The last player to post that number? Hall of Famer Jack Ham.
Hicks only played 24 games over his first two seasons due to a torn pectoral that sidelined him in Week 8 of 2015. He had just faced Dallas again—and returned one of his seven INTs for a 67-yard touchdown in an eventual overtime victory. The freshman LB exited that game as the team leader in tackles and a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
In 2016, Hicks put together only his second full season in the past five years. Over his five years as a college player and two as a pro, he has seen six different defensive coordinators and six different linebacker coaches.
Consistency has not been a luxury afforded to Jordan Hicks.
But, unlike the 2016 offseason, during which he rehabbed from injury and prepared for another new defensive scheme, style, and coaching staff, Hicks has enjoyed an offseason of health and predictability this year. He’s coming off a second-year campaign to the tune of 95 tackles, 5 INTs, 0 FF, and the best coverage grade of all linebackers, per Pro Football Focus.
Despite his record-setting and league-leading production, Hicks was not among the list of ten interior linebackers who garnered at least one All-Pro vote in 2016. When you compare Jordan Hicks’ 2016 stats to those of the ‘backers who received the most votes, it’s tough to find the hang-up.
Hicks was asked during an interview in late April how he felt about the lack of accolades:
“With time, it’ll come. There’s a process to it—you have to get your name out there, you have to have a good year. But at the end of the day, where my focus is on, is the team and the defense. Making sure that we can be as good as we can possibly be. And if we do that, everything extra will come—if I can be the best that I can be for this Eagle defense and this Eagle team, everything else will fall in place.”
Across the league, players from every team have their own hashtags and titles. Their Twitter accounts are speckled with them: Carson Wentz and his Audience of One (#AO1) serves as a fine example. In his bio, Wentz notes his position, too: QB of the Philadelphia Eagles. Fletcher Cox’s bio has his position, and his number as well: #91. Rodney McLeod’s includes his former captaincy at the University of Virginia. Jordan Matthews lists all of his roles: Believer. Fiancé. Son. Brother.
Though he was baptized last year, Jordan Hicks has no Audience of One hashtag or other pronunciation of faith. He doesn’t have his number, accolades, or even his position. A believer, brother, son, and fiancé likewise, he doesn’t have all of his roles listed. He has his agent’s information, his team, and one other word:
Enjoy your clips of Alshon Jeffery catching passes from newly-mechanized Carson Wentz. Throw filters over pictures of LeGarrette Blount receiving a handoff to make them look even more hardcore. Move from shiny new toy to shiny new toy of Philly’s lucrative free agency, prognosticating their stats and impact. But as the cameras bounce around the locker room, from Nelson Agholor to Jalen Mills, from Jordan Matthews to Brandon Graham, the quiet heartbeat of the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense will be elsewhere, nary a reporter about him.
Jordan Hicks doesn’t need your questions about whether or not Carson Wentz looks like more of a leader, or how the rookies are settling in. Sure, he’d answer them if you asked. But Jordan has never been one for the spotlight. Through his multiple awards, his three season-ending injuries, his Hall of Fame company, his six defensive schemes, his league-leading stats, and his All-Pro snub, he’s stayed the course laid out for him by his mother over the years.