Chiefs film review: Jaden Hicks is set to be a hammer in the secondary

Will Jaden Hicks' aggressive style of play earn him a role in Spagnuolo's defense or will he find himself riding the pine in an already loaded safety room?
Washington State v Oregon
Washington State v Oregon / Lydia Ely/GettyImages

Defensive back Jaden Hicks personifies the mantra "Be the hammer, not the nail." His dominant, physical style of play set the tone for the Washington State Cougars defense, ensuring a solid selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. However, after an unforeseen fall on draft weekend, Hicks fell to the Kansas City Chiefs at pick 133.

Hicks was widely regarded as one of the top 5 safeties in the class, as his athletic profile alone puts him in the top 10% of safety prospects to ever declare for the draft.

These elite athletic traits, combined with the Chiefs' proven ability to turn late-round defensive backs into top-flight performers, had many sports pundits touting him as the next in a long line of "Brett Veach draft day steals."

Hicks' intimidating presence over the middle of the field and aggressive nature is not all he has to offer as a prospect. His elite size for the position, anticipation in run support, and stickiness in coverage make him the perfect fit in an otherwise crowded Kansas City defensive back room.

Let's take a look at how he quickly processes and attacks against the run, his style of play over the middle of the field, and how he makes an immediate impact to the Chiefs' secondary.

Instinctual Run Support

Calling Hicks' run support IQ "instinctual" might still be doing him a disservice. His ability to diagnose, trigger, and tackle running backs when running outside/inside zone, gap, or duo run schemes is up there with the elite of the elite. Check out the video below.

This play starts with film study, as Wisconsin ran the ball on nearly all of their 2nd and 5-7 (yards to go) situations. Hicks reads the right tackle as he goes to block, understanding that if the right tackle down blocks (which he does in this case), he's responsible for filling the gap and tackling the ball carrier. Hicks takes less than a second to process all of this information and attacks downhill to plug up the run.

Hicks absorbs the contact, wraps up, and holds on to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. This is one of the most consistent occurrences on his tape. His Nick Bolton-esque ball-hawking and perfect situational awareness make him a force against the run.

Super Strong Safety

It doesn't take a medium to feel Jaden Hicks' presence over the middle of the field. The dude hits like he's Brian Dawkins' long-lost son. Take a look at this clip.

Hicks drops into the lurker/rat/robber role in a single high-safety coverage look. He notices the slot receiver (second-highest WR from the top) leaning outside so he positions himself inside. The receiver runs an inside-breaking route, Hicks comes down with the power of Thor himself, then lays the wood.

Heaven help the poor, undersized receiver that gets put on a slant when Hicks is on the field. Thankfully, the league requires that an ambulance and stretcher be available during every NFL game.

Last, let's look at how Hicks can make an immediate impact on the current Chiefs' roster.

Immediate Fit

Jaden Hicks, Ja'Lynn Polk
Washington State v Washington / Steph Chambers/GettyImages

Jaden Hicks does have the ability to become the next Justin Reid, however, his path to playing time isn't nearly as straightforward. Unlike Reid, Bryan Cook, or L'Jarius Sneed, there is no immediate (traditional) role that he can plug into on day one.

Cornerback is likely locked up with Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson, Joshua Williams, Nic Jones, and Nazeeh Johnson filling those roles. Linebacker (which he can play in spurts) is full with Nick Bolton, Drue Tranquil, and Leo Chenal filling out the starting spots. Lastly, safety is possibly the deepest position on the team with Justin Reid, Cook, and Chamarri Conner on the roster. If the Chiefs want to utilize Hicks' skillset, they are going to have to get creative with how he sees the field. Luckily for them, they have the most creative DC in football.

If Spanuolo wants to get Hicks involved and making plays on defense, Hicks needs to be utilized in a hybrid sub-linebacker/robber role. Let me explain.

Highlighted in red, the sub-linebacker and robber roles do essentially the same thing. They provide support on inbreaking routes, help against the run game, and occasionally matchup against larger receiving threats (RBs & TEs). Not only does Hicks have the size and athleticism to match up well against tight ends and running backs downfield, but his desire to obliterate anyone that comes over the middle makes him a terror for opposing offenses.

Roster-wise he fits this role perfectly. While Cooks and Reid can fill the role of robber or sub-linebacker, their knowledge and experience can be better utilized at the free safety spot, where their range and discipline complement the position more effectively. The linebacker group lacks any depth, so Hicks' skillset and ability to take some of those early-season hits should be able to fill the void, as well as add longevity to an otherwise transient position.

Hicks has a perfect role in this defense at his fingertips. If his demeanor and playing style translate to the NFL he will likely become another name known throughout Chiefs Kingdom, and quite possibly, the league for years to come.