Patriots DT Akiem Hicks setting himself up for big free-agent payday

Quick-hit thoughts around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. If Patriots defensive tackle Akiem Hicks keeps playing like he has of late, he’s going to make himself a lot of money on the free-agent market after this season, as one of his current teammates pointed to him in the locker room last week and said, “I’ll play with that guy any day of the week.” Defensive tackles with Hicks' combination of size (6-foot-5, 325 pounds), strength, intelligence and athleticism are commodities if they are used correctly, and that’s my biggest takeaway from watching Hicks emerge. The Saints, under former coordinator Rob Ryan, had Hicks playing out of position at times early this season by aligning him outside the offensive tackle as an end. It made little sense. In New England, Hicks has solely been an interior player, and his play has been solid and also has had a trickle-down effect to help create disruptive plays for ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard.

2. The opposite of what is happening with Hicks in New England appears to be unfolding with former Patriots defensive end/outside linebacker Akeem Ayers in St. Louis. Ayers cashed in on a two-year, $6 million contract this past offseason with the Rams, as his value on the market was enhanced after the Patriots helped revive a career that had stalled in Tennessee. In 2014, the Patriots had used Ayers as a nickel rusher, occasional early-down defensive end, and emergency off-the-line linebacker, mostly preferring to have him playing forward. In St. Louis this year, he’s been used more in coverage and his production has been stagnant -- 14 games, 36 tackles, no sacks, four passes defended and one forced fumble. Some media observers in St. Louis now wonder if Ayers will be around to see the second year of his deal (which includes a $1 million roster bonus).

3. With Hicks and Ayers as two examples, this highlights an area in which I view the Patriots as generally further ahead of many of their competitors: their ability to accurately assess a player’s strengths and weaknesses, then employ the player in a role within their system that puts him in the best position to succeed. It’s often a win-win for all involved. The Patriots get the best the player has to offer, and the player’s market value rises because of it. The most extreme example I recall in recent years was defensive end Mark Anderson, who arrived on a one-year, $1.3 million deal in 2011 and parlayed it into a four-year, $19.5 million pact in Buffalo but ended up lasting just one season with the Bills (in part due to injury).

4. Former Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff, now in his eighth season as Falcons general manager, is under some media-based fire as his job status has become a hot topic after the team started 6-1 but now finds itself 7-7. That seems impulsive. Any time there is a new head coach (Dan Quinn is in his first season), or a change in coordinators (three each on offense and defense since 2008), there is going to be some dip in player retention based on scheme-specific scouting. Like others, Dimitroff has had some missteps, but the good far outweighs the bad and continuity is often the better choice than change for change’s sake.

5. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has said in the past that when a team signs a player, it gets everything that comes with him -- on and off the field. That’s what came to mind after learning more about rookie cornerback Troy Hill, whom the team claimed on waivers from the Cincinnati Bengals on Christmas Day. Hill was suspended for Oregon’s “Civil War” victory over Oregon State last season for an undisclosed violation of team rules, and also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of menacing from a 2014 mid-December domestic-violence arrest. That likely contributed to Hill going undrafted, but after signing with the Bengals as a free agent and playing well in the preseason and in three regular-season games, he didn’t run into any problems in Cincinnati. One NFL coach familiar with Hill referred to him as a scrappy player who competes, but he’s smaller for the position (5-11, 182) and doesn’t have top-end speed.

6a. Did You Know, Part I: Including declined penalties, the Bills have been flagged 157 times for 1,142 yards this season. Both are league highs.

6b. Did You Know, Part II: The Colts have gone 48 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher, the longest streak since the Bengals from 1992-1997, according to Elias Sports Bureau (67 straight games).

6c. Did You Know, Part III: There are only three players in the NFL who have four or more interceptions as well as 10 pass breakups -- Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters (seven INT, 12 breakups), Carolina cornerback Josh Norman (four INT, 14 breakups) and New England cornerback Logan Ryan (four INT, 10 breakups).

7. With Brandon Weeden set to start for the Houston Texans on Sunday at Tennessee, he will be Houston’s sixth different starting quarterback since the start of last season, the most in the NFL. For Bill O’Brien to have led the Texans to a 9-7 mark last year, and to have them at 7-7 and in the playoff hunt this year, reflects well on him. Yes, it helps to play in the weak AFC South. But there’s also the saying that if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a chance. That’s not the case in Houston.

8. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, veteran running back Steven Jackson will earn a total of $290,000 for his five games with the team. While that would be a nice payday for the everyday man, for a player of Jackson’s credentials, the modest total is a reminder that his signing with the Patriots last week is motivated almost entirely by one thing: The pursuit of a Super Bowl ring. It’s a fun storyline -- much like Junior Seau returning to New England about halfway through the 2009 season -- as Jackson’s monetary breakdown looks like this:

  • $57,000 vs. Jets (1/17th of $970,000 base salary)

  • $57,000 vs. Dolphins (1/17th of $970,000 base salary)

  • $25,000 to play in divisional game (as part of every player’s playoff share)

  • $46,000 to play in conference title game (as part of every player’s playoff share)

  • $102,000 to win the Super Bowl (as part of every player’s playoff share)

If the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl and lose, each player gets a $51,000 share.

9. It’s been a quiet year for former Patriots running back Stevan Ridley with the Jets, as he opened on the physically unable to perform list while coming back from a torn ACL and has since played in six games. His stat line: 20 carries for 25 yards (1.3 per carry). “We’ve been trying to get him some plays in there and get some of the rust off,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said. “He’s been getting healthier by the week and he’s moving around a lot better [but] it’s tough when you have [Chris] Ivory and Bilal Powell back there to have a kind of a three-headed monster.”

10. The Patriots generally downplay individual awards publicly, so I thought Belichick’s reference to being pleased to have seven homegrown Pro Bowlers was one of the quotes of the week. He sounded like a proud papa.