Credit the seasoning. Credit the system.
Or maybe, credit both, because the combination of the two probably was the primary reason that New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks was a force last season, and is poised to make another significant jump this season.
The third-round draft choice in 2012 was solid as a rookie with 32 tackles and a forced fumble in 14 games. But last season, the 6-foot-5, 324-pound Hicks started all 16 regular-season games and lifted his totals to 56 tackles and 4.5 sacks, and at times was as disruptive as any defender for the Saints' No. 4-ranked defense.
This season will be helped by familiarity, because it'll be the second season for him in coordinator Rob Ryan's defensive system. Steve Spagnuolo was the Saints' defensive coordinator in Hicks' rookie year.
"You're back in that same package and you're getting to do the same things that you did last year," he said. "Just get better at it, get more comfortable in it. I think that's the same way for everybody.
"That's big, to have the same defensive coordinator again."
Too, it's significant that the Saints added defensive help. In the secondary, safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey joined the team. At linebacker, Victor Butler returns from injury after missing all last season with a knee injury. And draft picks were used at cornerback and linebacker.
Those kinds of additions/returns have Hicks excited about what the group can do.
"It's awesome to see contributions from other guys from other teams that are coming in like Jairus and Champ," Hicks said. "It's tough to see those guys go that had to leave, but it's good to see these new guys come around and hopefully compete and contribute something to the team."
Those contributions should be boosted by Hicks, who seems prepared to make another big jump in performance.
"I expect to come in and work hard, like I've been doing," he said. "This year is going to be another year for me where hopefully I get better."
Photos of the New Orleans Saints OTA on June 5, 2014. Photos by Matthew Sharpe (New Orleans Saints photos)