Jordan Hicks is entering the final season of his four-year contract with the Eagles. Based on production and personality, Hicks is a player the Eagles should want to retain and build around as a core piece of a contending team. But teams are often wary of making major investments in players who spend as much time in the training room as on the field, which is one reason why Hicks' 2018 season will be so fascinating for the Eagles.
"When I'm out there, I'm productive," Hicks said. "For me, it's stay healthy, play your game, and let it happen. I don't have a problem or any question in my mind that if I'm healthy, I'm going to be productive. It's just a matter of staying on the field."
Hicks has range, but he can't outrun the "injury-prone" label. In three seasons in Philadelphia, Hicks has missed nearly 40 percent of the Eagles' games. He missed eight games as a rookie in 2015 because of a torn pectoral tendon and nine regular-season games and the entire postseason in 2017 with a torn right Achilles tendon. He played all 16 games in 2016.
Hicks said his recovery is going well, adding he's "been ahead of schedule" since he suffered the injury in October. He would not give a target date for his return, noting that there's a lot of time between now and the season. In a December interview, Hicks indicated that he would be back on the field for training camp and that the recovery time was 6-9 months.
"We've got a lot of time on our hands," Hicks said. "My mind-set, especially right now with a lot of time, is progressing every single day. Don't want to put too much workload on. Don't want to put not enough. Trying to stay in that good range. … So many things go into it. It's not just the Achilles. It's all the surrounding muscles. It's all the things that make you who you are on the field."
Hicks would know, because he's gone through this drill before. Durability was a concern when the Eagles drafted him. Among his injuries at Texas was a torn Achilles, just as he's enduring now, only on the other leg.
When he's on the field, Hicks is a difference-making linebacker. Few players in the NFL can match his play-making ability. He became the first linebacker in NFL history with 11 takeaways (seven interceptions, four fumble recoveries) in his first 24 games since Hall of Famer Jack Ham in the early 1970s. He's a true three-down linebacker who wore the defensive headset, making the calls and helping with alignment. Hicks, who will be 26 in June, has been praised for his maturity and intelligence. All the ingredients are there for him to be a foundational player for the Eagles. But he must prove he can stay on the field.
The Eagles re-signed Nigel Bradham to return as a starting linebacker. Mychal Kendricks is still on the roster as a starter in their base defense, although he's considered a trade candidate because his playing time takes a backseat when Hicks is healthy. The Eagles sought to fortify their linebacking depth this offseason, adding veterans Paul Worrilow and Corey Nelson. That helps, but it's not like having Hicks. It's up to Hicks to prove to the Eagles that they can trust his health.
"We have tremendous confidence in Jordan," Eagles executive vice president Howie Roseman said. "He's going a great job [of rehabbing]. He's overcome these [serious injuries] before and came back strong and has the skill set to be able to do that."
Injuries are often unlucky. It's not as if Hicks keeps injuring the same muscle, tendon, or bone. Injuries sometimes can also unfairly create a reputation that a player lacks some type of toughness, but to hear Hicks explain it, his problem is the opposite. He wants to play too much. When he tore his right Achilles, he believes, it was because he tried playing through a lingering left-ankle injury. He overcompensated with the opposite leg, causing the devastating injury.
"As I've become a pro, you gotta learn there's a level of being smart and understanding when enough is enough and when you have to say 'no' at some point," Hicks said. "Whether it's pride or things that are in my head, those questions have to be answered. I decided not to come out. I decided to tough it out."
This is a conundrum for Hicks. He feels a sense of responsibility to his teammates and team. But he realizes now, more than ever, that a short absence is the lesser evil compared to a long absence.
The goal, of course, is not to miss any time at all. Hicks has examined his recovery regimen and is diligent about maintaining his body. He knows that it's a contract year and that his health is the biggest question, but Hicks is trying to avoid focusing on that component of the season. He wants to stay on the field as much for his own pride as he does for his future earnings. So the focus this offseason is getting healthy – and staying healthy.