Last season, the Chicago Bears boasted arguably the top defensive unit in football with a league-leading 36 forced turnovers and just 299.7 total offensive yards allowed per game. Bears defensive lineman Bilal Nichols, just a rookie last season, saw limited playing time on a stacked front seven but flashed enough upside to have fans excited for his 2019 sophomore campaign.
Nichols just so happens to be the most recent addition to the long list of general manager Ryan Pace’s “diamond-in-the-rough” late-round draft finds. After being drafted as a fifth-rounder out of Delaware, Nichols had to earn his stripes in the Windy City, having to wait until Week 6 for his first career start.
The small-school standout sniffed the starting lineup just six times in Year 1. However, he made the most of his opportunities, finishing with 28 combined tackles, including three sacks and five tackles for loss.
Take these numbers and compare them to DT Eddie Goldman, a 16-game starter who was graded luxuriously by Pro Football Focus (89.2) in 2018, who compiled 40 tackles, also ending his campaign with three sacks and five tackles for loss. The takeaway here is that Nichols posted comparable stats to one of the best interior defenders in the league, but in 10 fewer starts.
It’s easy to see the type of force Nichols imposed on opposing offenses when get got his chance.
Standing at 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, Nichols possesses impressive athleticism and first-step quickness that allows him to bulldoze interior linemen. He showcases these traits in the video below along with a strong lower-half and outstanding pad level that allows him to disrupt the Arizona Cardinals’ run-game back in Week 2.
It doesn't get talked about enough and I'll be writing about it soon but Bilal Nichols had a good rookie year for being a fifth round pick. Played with some great players but he had moments where he was disruptive as hell. #DaBears pic.twitter.com/l0CRfLhDMZ
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) May 9, 2019
Already hot on the heels of his teammates after one season, Nichols is primed to make a second-year leap.
Assuming he cracks the starting lineup this Fall, his offseason preparation should pay dividends for the reigning NFC North champs. As reported by Bears Wire last week, Nichols joined Jeff Joniak on Bears All-Access and gave fans a sneak peek of what to expect in 2019.
I felt like last year I was a lot more quicker than powerful, but this year I have a huge emphasis on being almost equal. I want to be able to switch it up. A lot of my game is based on versatility. I feel if I can get stronger this offseason, and continue to get quicker, it can create some matchup problems for me and help me be even more successful.” – Bilal Nichols
Yet another aspect of Nichols’ game that stands out is his versatility, being a guy that can lineup inside or move out to the 5-technique. As teams continue to game plan around highly-respected stars like Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, they’ll have a tough time keeping Nichols in-check.
On a defense already littered with talent, one can see how easy it can for an opposing team to lose sight of the emerging youngster. However, it could prove to be a costly mistake that offensive coordinators around the league will be forced to pick up on in short order. With Nichols’ continual development, all arrows point toward a sophomore surge in 2019.