The Bears are counting on defensive end Akiem Hicks to do more than just sack quarterbacks and stuff running plays this season. They're also looking at the seven-year veteran to provide leadership on a young defense.
"It's big to have Akiem ready to continue being that leader," said coach Matt Nagy. "He's been in this league for a while now. He's a big imposing man that can do a lot of good things on defense.
"He's naturally a leader. He's energetic when he's out there on the line and he's going to talk trash a little bit here or there. He also understands, too, that we have a young team and he has some young guys under him. They're going to not only watch how he plays in a game but how does he practice, and he's been doing great with that."
It helps that Hicks is a highly productive player; last season he led the Bears with 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles-for-loss while also recording 54 tackles and two forced fumbles. But with a personality as big as his 6-5, 332-pound frame, he's a natural leader.
"It's never forced," Hicks said. "It's never good forced. I think the best way to lead is by example, doing things right day-in and day-out. The younger guys will see that and they'll want to emulate it so they can have success."
That's what Hicks did in 2012 when he was selected by the Saints in the third round of the draft and joined a team with a slew of veteran defensive players.
"It's kind of funny how it happens," Hicks said. "One day you're the rookie, and I'm under Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Sedrick Ellis and all these guys who have been doing it a number of years, and then you turn around seven years later and now you're that guy. It's an interesting dynamic, and you appreciate each day you get out here."
Hicks has high expectations for a defense that returns most of its starters from a unit that ranked ninth in the NFL in points allowed and 10th in total yards last season.
"We can go anywhere with the group of guys we have right here," Hicks said. "It can be awesome. We just have to make sure everybody is brought along and up to speed and playing the way they're supposed to play. It's that simple."
Asked how the defense can improve this year, Hicks said: "You take those things that you do well and you sharpen them even more, and you try and get the things that you didn't do so well and you try to bring them up to par."
One area the Bears are determined to improve is interceptions. They picked off only eight passes last season for the third straight year.
"[It's] something we talked about in meetings the other day," Hicks said. "We want more interceptions, so there has to be a focused effort in order to come out and get those."