The following is the sixth of nine stories featuring an ascending young Bears player heading into the 2021 season:
Bilal Nichols, defensive tackle
How he was acquired
The Bears selected Nichols with their 2018 fifth-round pick, No. 145 overall. Nichols is one of six picks from that draft that have stayed in Chicago and one of the four that have carved out a starting role.
Despite playing for FCS Delaware, Nichols boasted intriguing measurables. At the NFL Combine, he measured at a hair under 6-4 and 306 pounds. He also posted a 4.95 time in the 40-yard dash.
That alone led then-NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock to single him out as a potential steal.
"His height, weight, speed for that position is at the highest level you could possibly have," said Mayock, "but you really have to go back to his 2016 tape to see who he really is."
Mayock disapproved of how Nichols was used when Delaware switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 during Nichols' senior season. Mayock said that Nichols did a fine job of absorbing blockers as an end but shined when he played inside.
Statistically speaking, Nichols was actually more productive for the Blue Hens as a senior. He recorded 56 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, 5.5 sacks and an interception. As a junior, he recorded 25 tackles, 7.5 for a loss, five sacks, and five pass breakups.
Despite the numbers, there was an open debate by scouts and those covering the draft over whether Nichols' future was on the inside or outside. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report cited Bills' nose tackle Star Lotulelei as the best comparison for Nichols. Like Nichols, Lotulelei played both inside and outside in college.
The Bears decided that Nichols' would be an ideal 5-technique for their 3-4 defense but liked his ability to play anywhere on the line.
"I think when we evaluated him," said defensive line coach Jay Rodgers, "he primarily played the nose position in college day-in and day-out. And so when we profiled him coming out in the draft, we knew that this could be a guy who plays multiple positions. And versatility is key in this game."
Prior to 2020 season
Nichols saw his first action in Week 2 of his rookie season, recording one tackle.
Competing with Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard for playing time, Nichols saw his opportunities increase as the season went along.
Nichols recorded a half-sack in the Bears' Week 4 blowout win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and recorded his first career full sack six weeks later against the Detroit Lions. He finished the season with three sacks.
Nichols' performance as a rookie was strong enough for the team to feel comfortable parting ways with Bullard, a former third-round pick, the week before the start of the 2019 season.
Nichols' second season was plagued with a hand injury he suffered in a Week 2 game in Denver that forced him to wear a club for the rest of the year.
"It's a little different feeling," said Nichols. "Really the biggest thing to me is just getting used to it. Everything's going good, though, so I'm happy to be moving in the right direction."
Nichols did not record a sack in 2019 and only recorded a single tackle-for-loss.
Perhaps the most crucial moment in Nichols' career came in late July, when nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted out of the 2020 season, paving the way for Nichols to see more time inside than he had in his previous two seasons.
"Bilal Nichols is gonna step in and play the best football that he can," said defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. "He showed promise through his first couple of years. So we look forward to him taking the next progression, the next step forward and—shoot—getting another position down."
Nichols showed up for training camp listed at 313 pounds, significantly bigger than his previous listed weight of 295.
With Goldman out, Nichols was the closest thing to a true nose tackle on the roster, and he impressed the coaching staff early in camp.
"He is a quick learner," said Rodgers. "He's always been a quick learner. I think when you come in as a rookie, you've got to learn a playbook. You've got to learn what your role is. And then, over time, when you get put in different positions, then you have to learn that role as well."
Rodgers predicted a rotation at the position, with Brent Urban and John Jenkins cycling in and Nichols continuing to see time on the outside.
Playing in a new role, Nichols was solid for the first five games in the season. On the first drive of the Week 6 matchup against the Carolina Panthers, Nichols sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater within arm's reach of the goal line. The near-safety contributed to a forced throw on the next play, resulting in an interception by safety Tashaun Gipson Sr.
Along with draft-classmate Roquan Smith, Nichols began to establish himself as one of the defense's most exciting young players.
"He's really coming on strong right now," said coach Matt Nagy. "He's learning from guys like Akiem Hicks and these guys on the D-line. Bilal is very detail-oriented. This year he's becoming opportunistic."
Over the last half of 2020, Nichols became one of the more productive defensive linemen in the league. He finished the season with 40 tackles, 13 quarterback hits, seven tackles-for-loss, five sacks hree passes defended and an interception—all career highs.
Nichols' Week 13 interception of Lions' quarterback Matt Stafford—the first of his career—showed off Nichols' tantalizing athleticism and situational awareness. While still engaged with his blocker, Nichols managed to reach out and pull a low pass into his body.
However, his position coach attributed his late-season surge to something else.
"His effort," said Rodgers. "Some of those plays don't just happen right away. The continued pursuit to be a better play on an everyday basis is starting to pay dividends for him. He continues to improve as the games go by, from his rookie year to his second year to his third year. Those are the kinds of things you like seeing in a young player."