Sean Payton: Development of young defensive linemen allowed Saints to trade Akiem Hicks _lowres

New Orleans Saints' Akiem Hicks (76) on the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. The Panthers won 27-22. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

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New Orleans’ decision to trade Akiem Hicks surprised many Saints fans, fans who’d known Hicks as an ascending player with a key role on the defensive line.

But the decision to trade Hicks to the New England Patriots for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was strictly based on football, according to Saints head coach Sean Payton.

A standout class of rookie defensive linemen, coupled with less production from Hicks, had given New Orleans enough depth on the defensive line to make the deal.

“We’ve been looking for some depth at the tight end position, and at the same time, we felt like we had a handful of young defensive linemen,” Payton said.

Two weeks ago, Hicks said he was benched against Tampa Bay.

But Payton said Hicks’ comments played no role in the decision to trade the defensive end. Citing conversations with Hicks in his office, Payton praised Hicks as a teammate and a worker.

“I spoke to Akiem yesterday, and he’s been fantastic as a teammate and a guy that works,” Payton said. “He’s been fantastic to coach. It was really a decision just based on the younger players we wanted to get more work with, and I think it has a chance to be a real good fit for him.”

The key was that Hicks has been losing snaps.

After playing 67 percent of the snaps in the season opener against Arizona, he played just 42 percent the next two weeks, and he had just two tackles and no sacks this season.

In his place, the Saints’ young players have been productive. Bobby Richardson, in particular, has nine tackles, and he forced Jameis Winston into Hau’oli Kikaha’s strip-sack against Tampa Bay.

“Bobby Richardson’s one player that we feel like is beginning to get good snaps,” Payton said. “You start adding it up, there’s two or three of these players, Eulls, Mabry, that have found a niche and a role. There’s a little bit of depth there, and we were able to get a tight end we knew.”