Akiem Hicks' Bears criticism shows why Justin Fields is key to quick rebuild

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Hicks' criticism of Bears shows why Fields is key to quick rebuild originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Akiem Hicks' decision to leave the Bears for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency shouldn't have come as a shock. Hicks is 32 years old and chose to play for a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, led by the greatest quarterback of all time.

Even the fact that the Bears didn't try to bring Hicks back, which the defensive lineman revealed Tuesday in his introductory press conference, isn't surprising.

However, something Hicks said in his Buc introduction speaks to the challenge the Bears face in building a sustained winner and why Justin Fields' second-year developmental is so critical to that process.

"When I came into the league, I had Drew Brees and Tom Brady as my first two quarterbacks. And then I went to Chicago. It wasn't Drew Brees and Tom Brady. I feel spoiled to have somebody on the other side of the ball that can deliver all the time. He has proven that over the years.

"It was definitely a draw," Hicks continued when asked if playing with an established quarterback was a goal. "It benefits a defense to have a quarterback that can control the clock, the ball, and field position. That's what we have here."

Shots fired? Maybe. True words? Absolutely.

In Hicks' six seasons in Chicago, the Bears had nine different quarterbacks start at least one game. The list is as follows: Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon, Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel, Nick Foles, Andy Dalton, and Fields.

To go from Brees and Brady to that group would be a shock to any winning player's system. Make no mistake, Akiem Hicks is a winning player.

New head coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles are building the Bears in their own vision. They've stripped the roster down and can begin to build it back up next season when they have around $100 million in salary-cap space.

It's easy to view relevant Bears football as years away. The term rebuild paints a picture of a long, drawn-out process of going from bottom-feeder to contender.

But there are few instances of "long rebuilds" in the NFL. Instead, a successful rebuild is done relatively quickly by getting difference-makers in critical positions, accumulating draft capital, performing savvy trades, and having the roster and money to lure winning players in free agency.

There's no doubt the Bears' current roster isn't the prettiest picture. But it can improve quickly, and Fields can accelerate that timeline by showing budding star potential consistently this season.

The Bears need only look to the quick turnaround by the Cincinnati Bengals to see how having a young quarterback on a clear star trajectory can change the course of the franchise.

Joe Burrow played in just 10 games during his rookie season, but the 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns, 65.3 percent completion rate, and immense toughness were enough to signal he was worth following.

Last offseason, the Bengals invested heavily in building a roster around Burrow, luring veteran free agents Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie, and offensive tackle Riley Reiff. It's become somewhat of a Cincinnati legend that a dinner with Burrow is what convinced Reiff to join the Bengals and not keep shopping around for other offers.

The gravity of a true franchise quarterback is hard to beat.

Yes, the Bengals had a lot of cap money, and they paid each of these free agents handsomely. But they might not have been in the running for any of them if not for Burrow and the belief he could deliver a winner.

For many players, winning takes a backseat to money. But the veteran free agents that truly make a difference are those like Hicks. Veterans who strengthen team culture with their presence and place winning above all else.

To win recruiting battles over Super Bowl contenders, you have to be able to sell them on a winning vision. Having a young quarterback on the cusp of stardom is the easiest selling point for the players Eberflus and Poles will want to attract.

Last season's struggles can't be placed at Fields' feet. Yes, the ball security needs to improve. The decision-making can and likely will get better in his second NFL season. But Fields was placed in an impossible situation playing for a lame-duck staff while running a scheme built for Dalton.

You can, in my opinion, flush most of what you saw from Fields last season. How he performs in offensive coordinator Luke Getsy's quarterback-friendly scheme should give us a clearer picture of his NFL trajectory.
It will also show the rest of the NFL what he is on track to becoming. Suppose Fields makes jaw-dropping plays with more consistency this season, and the Bears exceed expectations. In that case, players of Hicks' caliber might start flocking to Chicago to help the young signal-caller instead of heading for the exits.

Akiem Hicks told no lies Tuesday on his first day on a Super Bowl contender in six years.

The Bears' best hope is that Justin Fields starts to change that narrative beginning this fall.

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