Akiem Hicks was productive with the Saints and Patriots. But in his first year with the Bears in 2016, the veteran defensive end had a breakout season and became a team leader.
"I guess you just grow, you grow in the game," Hicks said Thursday. "I've been put in better and better situations since I left New Orleans. In New Orleans I was primarily a three-technique. Here I've been everything from a five- to a three- to a one-technique inside the guard.
"I would say that in New Orleans I was asked to do a lot of things that were out of my spectrum, out of my bubble. I can attribute me getting better to being in better situations."
Akiem Hicks led Bears defensive linemen with 71 tackles and seven sacks last season.
Although the Patriots were attempting to re-sign Hicks last year, he opted to join the Bears and proceeded to lead the team's defensive linemen with 71 tackles, seven sacks, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles while starting all 16 games.
Hicks was selected by the Saints in the third round of the 2012 draft when Bears general manager Ryan Pace worked in New Orleans' personnel department. The 6-5, 332-pounder was traded to the Patriots early in the 2015 season after the Saints had switched to a 4-3 defense.
A natural 3-4 end, Hicks appeared in 13 games and two playoff contests for New England in 2015, recording 21 tackles and three sacks.
"He's big, he's physical, he's got good athleticism for a man that size," said coach John Fox. "He's a big human being and that size comes in handy really in [defending] the run and the pass. He's a load. He's adapted here well. He's adapted his technique."
Hicks is especially effective at stopping the run, which remains the No. 1 priority for the defense.
"That's what they pay me to do," he said. "I'm 330 pounds, I'm 6-5. If you can't stop the run, there's really no point in me being here, right? So that's always been my focus. Anything I can do in the pass game is what I enjoy. My old coaches used to tell me you have to earn the right to rush the passer. If you don't stop them on first and second down, you're not going to get to that third down where you can get after it. That's why it's always a focus for me."
After signing with the Bears, Hicks immediately brought emotion and a swagger to their defense. It's something he first showed last summer in training camp when he screamed after flattening tight end Martellus Bennett during a joint practice with the Patriots in New England.
Entering his second season with the Bears, Hicks is helping the defense adopt a nasty mentality.
"We're building a culture, right? And it takes time," Hicks said. "It took a lot of last year to figure out how we were going to play this game as a unit and get used to one another. I think coming into this year, we knew where we wanted to be. We knew what our culture and what our identity wanted to be. Now we're just implementing it."
Hicks pointed to a play from last Saturday night's preseason win over the Cardinals as an example of the edge he wants to see the defense play with. Defensive ends Jonathan Bullard and Jaye Howard Jr. both fired out of their stances and teamed up to drop running back David Johnson for a one-yard loss with a crushing tackle.
"The intensity behind that," Hicks said, "and not just that but the energy that they carry out throughout the next couple of plays, it says a lot about where a guy's mindset is, and I think that's our defense as a whole."