Breakout candidate, defense: Akiem Hicks

METAIRIE, La. -- Akiem Hicks did nothing to diminish his reputation as a player on the verge of a breakout season last Thursday during the New Orleans Saints' organized team activity.

On the first play of team drills during the first practice that was open to the media this offseason, the third-year defensive end reached up to reject a pass attempt by quarterback Drew Brees.

"I think he is kind of coming into his own and finding his role in that front," said Brees, who said he has been impressed by what he's seen across the line. "He's a big physical guy and fits perfectly for our defensive structure with the 3-4. Big, strong, powerful, in both in the run and the pass. He's got good awareness. I like it when you see young guys like that develop. I'm glad he's on our side."

Hicks, whom the Saints unearthed as a third-round draft pick out of the University of Regina in Canada in 2012, started to really flash his potential last year. He started all 16 games and racked up 4.5 sacks.

At 6-foot-5, 324 pounds, Hicks ranks among the strongest players on the entire roster. He's demonstrated that both on the field and in the weight room, according to teammates.

But Hicks still has impressive athleticism for his bulk. As Brees said, he's been a big asset as both a pass-rusher and a run-stuffer for the Saints. And he fit well as an end in 3-4 alignments or a tackle in four-man fronts.

I'm not sure that Hicks will become a Pro Bowler, since that kind of recognition probably requires double-digit sacks for a defensive end, and I see Hicks as more of a mauler up front than a 12-sack pass-rush specialist. But he might wind up being just as valuable doing that "dirty work" as his Pro Bowl partner on the other end of the line, Cameron Jordan.