Following a season in which Hicks led Arizona in total tackles (118) and was named team captain for the first time in his NFL career, the 29-year-old, six-year veteran lost his starting job in April when the Cardinals selected Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins with the 16th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
ALL the latest Cardinals news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Cardinals newsletter here!
In July, general manager Steve Keim called Hicks to inform him that Collins would be sliding into the starting spot in 2021 and that the Cardinals would explore trade options for him.
Flash forward to the Cardinals’ season-opening victory over the Titans on Sunday, September 12, and Hicks was back on the field with a green dot on his helmet, relaying the radio play calls from the sideline to his teammates during Arizona’s 38-13 road win in Week 1.
Hicks not only started the game but was on the field for 95% of the defensive plays. The 6-foot-1, 236-pound linebacker from Texas played 61 snaps against the Titans, matching safety Budda Baker for the most on the team.
Collins, 22, saw action on 22 plays (34% of the defensive snaps), while second-year linebacker Isaiah Simmons, 23, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, was on the field for 58 plays (91%).
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters Monday, September 13, it was a matchup decision to have Hicks handle the on-field defensive play calls against the Titans.
The role could change from “week to week,” Kingsbury said, adding that the Cardinals would like to see Hicks, Collins and Simmons on the field together “as much as we can.”
Hicks made the most of his opportunities against Tennessee, finishing with four tackles — including three solo stops — as the Cardinals bottled up Titans running back Derrick Henry and limited last season’s leading rusher to just 58 yards on 17 carries (3.4 yards per carry).
Hicks, now in his third season with the Cardinals, had what Kingsbury called his best training camp with the team and worked his way back into a starting role.
“He had a tremendous camp. (He) came in and played his tail off all training camp and continues to do so,” Kingsbury said. “He’s getting guys lined up and playing at a high level.”
‘The Best Guys for That Game’
Throughout training camp, Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Hicks would have an important role on the team in 2021, noting that he’s played 2,000-plus snaps for the Cardinals over the past two seasons.
“You can’t discount that,” Joseph told reporters on Thursday, September 9. “Every game plan is going to be different. Some game plans, he’s going to be on the field with Isaiah and Zaven, and sometimes he won’t be. Every week is going to be a different plan to play the best guys for that game. He’s going to be a big part of what we’re doing defensively.”
It’s a much different position from the one Hicks found himself in back in July, when Keim was considering trading him.
“Quite frankly, we were honest with him through the process,” the Cardinals GM told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s “Burns and Gambo” on Friday, September 10, “and it was because we had such a great deal of respect for him as a person and what he brought to the table in our locker room.”
Keim called Hicks “a true pro” with the way he’s handled his changing role.
“I have a ton of respect for him,” he said, “and he’s also been a great mentor to those two young linebackers.”
Hicks continues to have the respect of his Cardinals teammates, who selected him as a defensive captain for the second year in a row.
“He’s handled everything this offseason like a true professional, like a true leader,” nose tackle Corey Peters told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on Monday, September 13.
“He’s a great quarterback of the defense and one of the really smart players that has a great feel for not only what he’s doing but for what everybody else is doing as well,” Peters added.
Hicks signed a four-year contract with the Cardinals in March 2019 after spending four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Into the End Zone — Almost
Peters also had a strong season debut in Tennessee, making a pair of solo tackles — both for a loss — and scooping up a first-quarter fumble from Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill following a strip sack by Chandler Jones. It was one of five sacks and two forced fumbles by Jones in the game.
For a moment, it looked as though Peters had scored the Cardinals’ first touchdown of the season. The 6-foot-3, 335-pound nose tackle picked up the ball at the 5-yard line and lunged toward the end zone. Officials originally ruled the play a touchdown, but it was overturned by replay officials who determined Peters was down just inside the 1-yard line.
“That was close,” Kingsbury told Arizona Sports 98.7 on Monday, September 13. “I wish they would have given it to him. It was a heads-up play by Corey to be there.”
Peters said he wasn’t able to fully get up after recovering the fumble, “so I was kind of stumbling a little bit.”
Peters, 33, now in his 12th NFL season, has one touchdown in his career — a fumble recovery back in 2011 when he was with the Atlanta Falcons. The two-time team captain signed a one-year deal to return to the Cardinals on August 2 after missing the second half of the 2020 season with an injury.
“Next time we’re definitely going to get it in the end zone,” he said.