When he's been on the field as the middle man in the Eagles' defense, Jordan Hicks has been an outstanding football player. He's always around the ball. He has a knack for takeaways. He rarely makes a mental mistake, and Hicks has the physical tools to be stout against the run and stay on the field to play sideline to sideline in pass coverage.
He is, everyone agrees, a terrific piece for this defense.
When he's been on the field.
The problem for Hicks and, thus, the defense, is that the injury bug that hampered his collegiate career at the University of Texas sabotaged two of his first three NFL seasons. In 2015, Hicks suffered a torn pectoral muscle and missed the second half of the year. In 2017, Hicks suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the seventh game of the season against Washington and was lost for the rest of the campaign. After playing in 95 percent of the defensive snaps in 2016, Hicks watched the final nine games of the regular season and the Super Bowl run last season.
As he met reporters on Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex, Hicks was repeatedly asked about coming back from another injury and, while weary of talking about that subject, Hicks acknowledged that he needs to stay on the field for the Eagles. Availability, they say, is the most important kind of ability. And in Hicks' case, that is certainly the truth.
"When I'm out there I'm productive. So for me it's stay healthy, play your game, and let it happen," Hicks said. "I don't have any question in my mind that if I'm healthy I'll be productive. It's just a matter of staying on the field and making sure I'm doing everything I can to get wins. That's the goal and always has been the goal. It's never changed."
The question of Hicks and his injury history is one of the many the Eagles must answer as they prepare for next week's draft. Basically, it comes down to this for the team: How much do they trust that Hicks will stay healthy in 2018?
With newly signed veteran Paul Worrilow on the roster with a one-year contract and 52 career starts under his belt and with Joe Walker here for his third season and completely healthy after a torn ACL ended his rookie season, the Eagles enter the draft covered at the position. It's also possible the draft brings more competition. As much as the Eagles love Hicks and know that when he's on the field there are few in the game who play at a higher all-around level, they have to make sure the position has depth and answers.
Hicks, of course, can't concern himself with that. He says his rehab is going very well and that his focus is on the day-to-day aspect of moving forward. At the same time, it's important for him to get on the field and stay there and fulfill the promise of his enormous talent.
"I don't think I need to do that for anybody else but myself. I think, ultimately, I want to play this game," Hicks said. "I love playing the game of football. I love being out there with my guys. When I'm not out there there's a sense of, I think every player feels this way when you can't help your team, is that you're letting them down in a way because you know you could be out there making an impact. I have to make sure that I'm out there. My motivation is from within and obviously it stems from the guys around me. I want to be able to have that accountability and let guys know that I'm going to be there for them, no matter what."
Hicks said he played in 2017 with an ankle injury in games leading up to the one against Washington that ended his season. He played through the pain of the ankle injury and, in the end, that may have cost him when his Achilles ruptured against the Redskins. Without Hicks, the Eagles went with Walker and then acquired veteran Dannell Ellerbe, and used safety Malcolm Jenkins as a quasi-linebacker and expanded Nigel Bradham's role in the nickel. It all worked.
Playing without Hicks, who position coach Ken Flajole says "raises the bar at linebacker for us," the Eagles still dominated defensively down the stretch and through the NFC playoffs and won the Super Bowl.
"I give this game everything I've got and I'm not afraid to say that. You can ask anybody about my work ethic," Hicks said. "I give it everything. It's tough. It's hard. I make sure my recovery regimen is the same and I'm working on that. I think a part of it is knowing when to come back. I was dealing with an ankle injury for a month before that and, to me, I think that had something to do with it. I'm a professional athlete and you put me in a position to go play and I'm going to compete as hard as I can. That's just my makeup.
"We've got a lot of time on our hands. Really, the mindset, especially right now with so much time, is just progressing every single day. We don't want to put too much workload on it. We don't want to put not enough. We're trying to stay in that good range. As of now, it's focusing every single day on getting back and getting better. There are so many little things that 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. It's just making sure I'm strong in all areas."
It all sounds good. And promising. Everyone wants Hicks to come all the way back from the devasting injury and star and stay on the field.
But when it comes down to draft weekend, what happens? It's a vital position in the defense. Do the Eagles feel like they have enough at middle linebacker as the roster is currently constituted?