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Jordan Hicks earns bigger role with Eagles

Jordan Hicks isn't exactly Lou Gehrig to Mychal Kendricks' and Kiko Alonso's Wally Pipp, but when the latter two linebackers return from injuries they may not necessarily have their jobs as they once knew them.

Jordan Hicks.
Jordan Hicks.Read more(Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

Jordan Hicks isn't exactly Lou Gehrig to Mychal Kendricks' and Kiko Alonso's Wally Pipp, but when the latter two linebackers return from injuries they may not necessarily have their jobs as they once knew them.

The Eagles haven't lost a step on defense since Hicks was thrust into the lineup after injuries to Kendricks and Alonso in Week 2. He has had a few rookie moments - as would be expected - but defensive coordinator Bill Davis said Hicks has done enough to remain in the inside-linebacker rotation.

"When the guys come back, they're coming back from injury, so first of all, he will help us keep them on a lower pitch count as they heal," Davis said Wednesday. "As Chip [Kelly] said, it's a great problem to have. But when it comes to pass and we've got all them up and healthy, then we'll just have to play on a rotation basis and with packages."

It may be another week before Davis will have to set the rotation. Kendricks, who sat out Sunday's win over the Saints with a hamstring injury, did not practice Wednesday. Neither did Alonso, who recently had arthroscopic knee surgery and likely isn't expected back until after the Eagles' bye on Nov. 1.

DeMeco Ryans and Hicks have started two of the last three games together at inside linebacker. Kendricks tried to return two weeks ago against the Redskins, but he aggravated his hamstring injury and was out after 11 snaps.

Hicks was already playing in the nickel package ahead of Ryans, but the loss of Kendricks forced him once again to play all three downs. That is essentially how Kelly has billed the Texas product since the Eagles selected him in the third round of the draft. But did he know Hicks was that athletic?

"That's what we thought coming out," Kelly said Monday. "I know some people looked at us [and said,] why are we drafting him in the third round? We thought we got a steal in the third round. He was our highest-rated guy for a reason."

Even though he didn't play a single snap on defense in the opener, Hicks is second on the Eagles in tackles (34). He knocked out Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo for his lone sack and has another tackle for loss, one interception, a forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries.

The 6-foot-1, 236-pound Hicks rolls downhill against the run and has shown that he can get to the quarterback as a pass rusher, but his coverage skills may be what have impressed the most.

Saints running backs Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson, and C.J. Spiller entered the game Sunday as three of Drew Brees' more reliable receiving options, but they caught only seven passes combined for 11 yards. Hicks played a large role in keeping them in check.

The Eagles will face a similar challenge on Monday night against the New York Giants. Running back Shane Vereen (20 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown) has become one of Eli Manning's most dangerous weapons.

"They try to get him the ball in space - little angle routes, option routes," Hicks said.

The Saints tried the same with Ingram, but Hicks often had him blanketed when he was responsible for man-to-man coverage. Brees tried to go to his running back inside the red zone, but Hicks jumped the route and forced him to throw wide and incomplete.

Hicks is as good in zone situations. He once bit on a play-action pass but turned and ran back into his coverage, and along with Ryans he took away a crossing route. Brees pumped, was sacked by Fletcher Cox for a third time, and fumbled.

"When you get caught in play-action, we tell them to turn and run . . . and then look back and see what the quarterback is doing," Davis said. "But [Hicks] was doing it well."

The play that stood out the most, however, was when Hicks feigned a blitz at the line. Brees turned his head before the snap and the 23-year-old dropped deep into coverage. The quarterback tried to fire a pass over Hicks, but the linebacker jumped and nearly snared an interception.

Eagles coaches and Hicks' fellow linebackers have often spoken about his high football I.Q. His mind and sneak-up-on-you athleticism have lowered the first-year learning curve. Hick's 38-inch vertical leap at the NFL combine was tied for fifth among 34 linebackers.

"I've always been confident in my abilities," Hicks said. "Obviously, I was anxious to get out there and see what it was like and get a taste of the NFL. Never did I question it. . . . I believe I'm here for a reason."

But Hicks said that trusting himself remains a battle. On the Saints' first touchdown, safety Malcolm Jenkins made a call that required Hicks to jump outside on the tight end. It wasn't the best call and Hicks motioned back inside when he saw Nolan Carroll running over. But he still should have stayed put and Brees took advantage of the mistake.

"There was a little bit of indecision there," Hicks said. "That's one of those plays that I have to trust it myself. Initially, I went out there and did the right thing. But at the end of the day, there's no excuse."

Davis said the initial plan heading into the season was to ease Hicks in via special teams. He didn't have that luxury after the injuries. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

"I knew we had a good player, but with rookies, you never know," Davis said. "I've just seen it so many times. Then it's the bright lights and that's always an adjustment. . . . But now he's thrown in, he's definitely in the discussion."