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Billings embodies Bears mentality with effort, selflessness
Story by Gabby Hajduk

The Bears on Thursday signed veteran defensive tackle Andrew Billings to a two-year contract extension through the 2025 season. Through his hard work, veteran leadership and playmaking ability, coaches and players alike consider Andrew Billings an "unsung hero" of the Bears defense.

On the first defensive play of the Bears' season-opener against Green Bay, nose tackle Andrew Billings powered his way into the backfield and pushed Packers center Josh Myers into running back Aaron Jones, allowing defensive end DeMarcus Walker to record the tackle-for-loss.

That play also marked the first of Billings' tenure with the Bears, setting the tone for an impressive start to his seventh NFL season.

"He gets out there and the first play he's in the backfield, he [helps] with a tackle for loss," Bears manager of football administration and pro scout James Cosh told "You're like, 'man off the bat, he's making an impact.' With a lot of guys you have to wait, but he does it right away."

With eight minutes left in the game, the Packers handed the ball off to running back AJ Dillon. Billings quickly shed his block and went to chase Dillon down the sideline, jumping over Packers receiver Dontayvion Wicks to do so.

"He showed you who he is," Cosh said. "He's making a hustle play, lays it all on the line for the team. That was early in the season, but right then I knew who he was."

Those two plays encompass Billings' role in Chicago – one where success isn't defined by concrete numbers like sacks, tackles-for-loss or quarterback pressures, but rather the intangibles like hustle and mentorship. It's how many times he moves the quarterback off a spot, occupies a block or turns the ball back toward another defender.

"He's disruptive, he's consistent," Cosh said, "and just kind of does a lot of the things — unsung hero things — that people don't probably see on the stat sheet all the time."

Those moments in the trenches that create opportunities for his teammates are what make Billings so valuable to the Bears and why the team signed him to a two-year contract extension on Thursday.

"We're extremely excited to be able to keep Andrew in Chicago," general manager Ryan Poles said. "The professionalism, dependability and toughness he brings exhibit the type of player we want in our organization."

Billings is excited to stay in Chicago "one, because they appreciate me and two, because I see a future here - not only for myself but also for the team."

"It feels good that somebody appreciates you and that you're doing a good enough job that they want you around a little longer," Billings told Thursday. "That always feels good."

Discovering Billings

Each fall, NFL scouting departments evaluate upcoming free agents from every team in preparation for the following spring. Last season, Las Vegas – where Billings played in 2022 — was a non-advance team for the Bears pro scouts, one that wasn't on their schedule that season.

So by the time Cosh was able to evaluate the Raiders' roster, it was the end of November, which is late in the scouting process.

"I just kept watching his film and he kind of played exactly the way our coaches preach," Cosh said. "He ran to the football. He hustled. He was strong, he was powerful. He did all the things that we were looking for. I was like, 'who is this guy?'"

Typically, Cosh would wait to present a player until the Bears front office's official free agency meetings after the season. But when he watched Billings' tape, he immediately walked down to the office of Bears co-director of player personnel, Jeff King.

King, who was in charge of ranking the defensive linemen in free agency, saw the same talent Cosh did. Billings' natural scheme fit as a nose tackle, his snap-to-hand quickness off the jump and a skill set that "multiplies the effort of others" all stood out to King in his evaluation.

"Those are the guys that in free agency are really cool because that's like eye of the beholder type of thing — where you see a vision for the player and you know that he can make these other four or five guys better. It's good value. That's the one thing you always want in free agency is good value."

Once January rolled around and Billings was discussed in free agency meetings, everyone saw the same vision and fit for him as King and Cosh did. King said the group, "earmarked him as a guy we would really like to target, and it worked out for us," as Billings signed with the Bears March 16.

The vision King had for Billings came full circle in the Bears' Week 5 victory in Washington. On the Commanders first possession, they faced third and inches at their own 34-yard line. At the snap, Billings shot into the backfield and immediately wrapped up running back Brian Robinson Jr. for a 1-yard loss, forcing a punt.

"He just gets out of the stack and tackles the runner for a TFL to start the game," King said. "That's kind of what he's been for us. He's been a consistent force that when you want to run the ball from guard to guard, he's that stable force."

Building character through adversity

Now seven years removed from being selected by Cincinnati in the 2016 NFL Draft, Billings is just grateful to still be playing at the professional level.

That mindset originated in August 2016 when he suffered a torn meniscus in training camp before ever playing a NFL snap.

"I was in a room for nine months straight, in the bed," Billings said. "That's as low as it gets. I just got drafted, couldn't help the team, felt like I was letting them down. It was horrible."

Having never faced such adversity as a four-star high school recruit in Texas or a standout at Baylor, Billings' mental state suffered. Dealing with "a little depression here and there," the thought, "my career is over with" crept into his head.

"It was a hit," Billings said of the injury. "It was a hit because it wasn't just football anymore. It's always football, but now it's my life, my job. So it hits harder. In college, I can struggle and it's like, 'well, I got to go pass this class anyway, so I can leave that there.' The NFL is different. You go home thinking about it. It's all you have to do."

Luckily, Billings had a strong support group from family to coaches to teammates that regularly checked in during the recovery process and assured him he still had a spot with the Bengals.

Still, the injury took away a year of learning through experience and being mentored by longtime Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko. Reflecting on it now, Billings didn't feel like his true self until during his fourth NFL season.

"I think I really felt it in my fourth year," Billings said. "That was when I felt like, 'Okay, I understand this stuff a little bit better.' It's really just understanding formations, sets, points, words the offensive linemen are sharing. That's really what it is – what the NFL is about. Everybody is talented. It is really just knowing what's going on beyond the film. It's what's going on on that field at that specific time."

Years removed from the lowest points of his life, Billings can see how that injury shaped his career and molded him into a different man. That hardship now allows him to play freely and without fear. It also led him to finishing his degree at Baylor after he was just 12 credit hours shy of graduating when he left for the draft.

Billings used his rehabilitation period as an opportunity to enroll in classes. Two years later, he walked across the stage at Baylor during summer commencement, officially earning his bachelor's degree in communications with a minor in business.

"The injury — as much as it hurt me, it helped me," Billings said. "Even now I don't play afraid to get hurt anymore. I just go out there and play. I got my degree behind me, I got some years behind me now in the league. I'm not afraid to get hurt anymore."

Paying it forward

Billings' injury was just the beginning of an unexpected and challenging yet rewarding NFL journey. After his rookie contract was up, the Bengals did not re-sign him.

He joined the Browns in 2020, but opted out that season because of COVID-19. He played in six games for Cleveland in 2021 before getting back on track with Las Vegas last season, playing in 14 games and playing 52 percent of the defensive snaps.

The perseverance Billings has shown throughout his career led the Bears to believe they were acquiring a "good character guy." Having been around Billings for eight months now, King knows that evaluation was correct.

"I always loved those guys that kind of carve out their role and they had some struggles," King said, "but then they ended up coming through and making it and being productive. What you have to do as a player to come through all that is you have to learn, you have to adapt, you have to find your role and you have to buy into your role."

Billings' veteran leadership trickled down to rookie defensive linemen Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens from the moments the pair became Bears.

Dexter recalls receiving texts from several Bears defenders on draft night once he was selected in the second round. But a message that came from "Big Billings" that read, "we're gonna take you in like a brother and we're gonna try and get you playing Year 1 like you're in Year 2" stood out the most.


To Dexter, Billings' willingness to teach and support rookies was instantaneous. The Florida product recalls Billings constantly pulling them to the side if he saw something they could improve on. Rather than just telling the rookies what they did wrong, Billings would show them through a drill and walk them through it.

Billings tends to lead by example, but when he does speak up, he's heard. His ferocity and hustle on the field is juxtaposed with his soft voice and quiet personality, but those traits command a different type of respect and admiration from his teammates.

"I know a lot of people say they're willing to do this, but honestly I think Andrew's willing to give you the shirt that he has on if you didn't have one," Dexter said. "Then on the field, he's the complete opposite. He's a dog. It's almost two completely different guys. On the field, he's a mean guy, he'll knock you back, he's a hard guy to deal with."

Possessing both those high character attributes and willingness to lay it on the line every Sunday are what make Billings an invaluable piece to both the Bears defense and the locker room.

"I think the hardest thing in the NFL is just to be the same person every day because it's so up and down," Cosh said. "But he's literally the same guy. Every single game, every single practice, every day, he comes in with the same attitude. He's not saying a lot, but he's in a good mood. He's doing his job, everything you want in a teammate and a leader. He really embodies what a Chicago Bear is – the effort, the respect, he embodies all of those traits."

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