In the afterglow of the Eagles' Super Bowl win, we offer a three-part series that examines the potential for the team's defense to improve with the growth of three key young players.
MINNEAPOLIS – It took the real Simba a while to get his footing, too.
Every part of Jordan Hicks expects to be an important piece of the Eagles' bright future. The foot he broke in the spring after his freshman season at Texas. The adductor muscle he tore as a junior. The left Achilles tendon he ruptured the following season. The torn pectoral muscle that cost him half of his rookie season with the Eagles. The broken hand that limited him in training camp this season. The right Achilles tendon he ruptured on Oct. 23, in the Eagles' seventh game.
That's the one that hurt most. That injury kept him from running the defense when the Eagles won Super Bowl LII. He could do nothing as the Eagles tried to replace him at middle linebacker with Najee Goode, Joe Walker, and Dannell Ellerbe.
This injury hurt Hicks the most, yes; but this injury helped the most, too. It accelerated his education.
Hicks didn't just hang out on the sideline while he healed this season. He reportedly wore a headset on game days. Hicks didn't just hang out in the whirlpool during the week. He prepared presentations for the linebackers.
Hicks expects to return for the beginning of the 2018 season, but players who suffer Achilles injuries sometimes need a year or more to completely recover. Hicks said last week, after the Super Bowl, that he is ahead of schedule. Whenever he returns, he will be readier than ever to run the show.
"I think, ultimately, what I saw with this team – what I learned as a leader, as a player – is to just stick to what has gotten you here," Hicks said. "It's unbelievable what this team has overcome. With all the negativity that surrounded the team, that it never penetrated inside this locker room. A lot of people tried to create drama, tried to create a problem within this locker room. And our guys didn't let that happen.
"It's who we are. It's the way our leaders lead. We don't let outside noise penetrate. We've been consistent. We stuck to what we were good at. We stayed consistent."
He pointed at his teammates around him as they celebrated in the locker room of U.S. Bank Stadium.
"We're always like this. Team has had fun. This team has played loose. Played with a swag, which a lot of people questioned a lot of times," Hick said. "A lot of people might have thought was out of character. But it's who we were."
A few feet away, left tackle Jason Peters poured cognac into a cooler bottle. Hicks saw that, and smiled.
He is one of three Eagles defenders who will see their contributions grow next season. Derek Barnett, a first-round defensive end, didn't start a single game. That will change. Sidney Jones, a second-round cornerback, missed the first 15 games as he recovered from an Achilles rupture suffered in predraft workouts. He played in only the season finale and was held out of the playoffs. He'll be a starter next season, and a good one.
Both will be led by Hicks.
The "Simba" nickname stems from Hicks' apprenticeship under DeMeco "Mufasa" Ryans, the team's veteran leader in 2015. It was Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins who started calling Hicks "Simba," and, one day Hicks will, in fact, be the locker room's king, the spokesman for the proletariat. It won't be the quarterback. It seldom is.
These days, quarterbacks usually stumble through canned media sessions and operate with brand-protection strategies. They seldom speak for the common man. That job often falls to a player such as Ryans. Jenkins, 30, assumed the job when Ryans left in 2015. Soon, it will fall to Hicks, who is 25. Ryans is now a coach in San Francisco. Rest assured, Hicks will coach one day. They share football DNA. They both approach the game with a regal regard for strategy.
It helps, of course, if you play once in a while.
Hicks is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. He has missed 20 of a possible 51 games, which essentially makes him an honorary 76er. But, like the Sixers, the Eagles see so much promise in Hicks that they are happy to gamble on his health.
The Eagles understand that Hicks is a rare commodity in the NFL; sort of a Swiss Army Knife outfitted with artificial intelligence. Yes, he's a middle linebacker who loves to stop the run, but those are minimum requirements. He also can cover tight ends and running backs; his five interceptions led linebackers in 2016, when he didn't miss a game. He can get to the quarterback as a blitzer. H has exceptional mental acuity. He sees the game like a safety — the coverage concepts, the keys. He communicates deftly.
So far, Hicks has also been a fragile commodity, but, of course, he doesn't see himself that way. He sees himself as an important component on a team that looks poised to compete for Super Bowl titles until he's 30. He sees himself being the defensive leader. The best leaders, he learned, help their followers capitalize on their strengths.
"We have a team of great players. Smart players, Guys who are intelligent, who are adaptable. Guys who can move around and adapt to change," Hicks said. "All of that builds into this. This is the epitome of a team. If you want to hear and see what a team is, look in this locker room."