Bears defensive lineman Bilal Nichols entered the 2020 season with a sizeable chip on both of his shoulders.
One was because few expected him to develop into the player he was sure he could become and the other was due to not performing as well as he wanted to do in 2019.
"Pretty much my whole life has been the underdog type thing," said Nichols, who was selected by the Bears in the fifth round of the 2018 draft out of Delaware. "I've never been the highest recruited guy. Never had the most offers. Never been the guy really looked at to be 'that guy.' And that burned me and that added a lot of fire.
"It just made me want to out-work everybody. I always told myself if a guy was better than me, it was just going to be because he was more talented, not because he out-worked me. That's kind of the mindset I live by."
That's exactly how Nichols approached his offseason conditioning work after being limited by an injury last year. The 6-3, 313-pounder broke his hand in a Week 2 win in Denver and missed three games. He recorded one more tackle in 2019 than he had as a rookie in 2018 (28-27) but produced fewer sacks (0-3), tackles-for-loss (1-5) and quarterback hits (2-7).
"This offseason, I just grinded," Nichols said. "I didn't have the year I wanted to have last year. I dealt with injuries. So I just grinded, grinded, grinded. I kept my head down and I went. No matter the circumstances—whether there was a pandemic or whatever—I was going to find a way to make things happen. That's really the reason why I'm able to play at a high level right now. I didn't cheat the grind. I didn't cheat myself in the offseason. I think it's starting to show."
It is indeed. Nichols has emerged as a force against both the run and pass this season, already establishing career highs with 39 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 7.0 tackles-for-loss and 12 quarterback hits. He registered his first NFL interception in a Week 13 loss to the Lions and set a career high with seven tackles in last Sunday's 33-27 win over the Vikings. He also split sacks versus Minnesota with Khalil Mack and Brent Urban, giving Nichols a full sack in each of the last three games.
"I feel like I'm playing the best football of my career right now," Nichols said. "I feel like just lately I've been super locked in. I've been locked in all season, but I've been able to really, like, hit a groove right now. I feel like everything is coming together.
"I feel like it all starts in the way I practice. I try to come out here each week and practice as hard as I can. Doesn't matter who we're playing. Doesn't matter how many plays I think I'll get. It doesn't matter if I'm playing end or nose. Doesn't matter where I'm at, I'm going to practice as hard as I possibly can. I feel like it's just all translating over to Sundays on the field."
Nichols credits much of his success to the knowledge he's gained from a veteran teammate. As soon as Nichols joined the Bears in 2018, he affixed himself to defensive tackle Akiem Hicks like Velcro.
"I've always been eager to learn," Nichols said. "When you're coming into a building with so many great defensive players, I feel like you would be a fool if you weren't eager to learn and take things from them.
"The first day I came in here, I was eager. I told myself, whenever I did drills, I was going to work with Akiem. I wanted to have a career just like his: Dominant guy, respected in the league. All-Pro caliber. I told myself every day I'm going to find a way to work with him, some way, somehow. Still to this day, I work with him every single day.
"Nothing about me has changed. I think that once he had seen that, I gained a lot of respect from him. It's just staying on top of those things. That's just how I am. That's never going to change. I'm always going to be receptive, even when I'm in my eighth, ninth year in the league, I'm still going to be eager to learn and figure out how I can get better."
“Pretty much my whole life has been the underdog type thing … It just made me want to out-work everybody.” Bilal Nichols
Nichols is a huge fan of Hicks' game and feels that his mentor—who has been voted to one Pro Bowl in nine NFL seasons—is vastly underrated and doesn't receive the accolades he deserves.
"Akiem is a dynamic player," Nichols said. "I feel like a lot of people take him for granted. A guy at his size who's able to move the way he does and able to be an impact and play as much as he does, and still be able to play at a high level is amazing. Me and him talk all the time and I tell him, 'The ability you have to still be so impactful late in the games and play the snap counts that you play, ninth year in the league, that's impressive.'
"I feel like he doesn't get enough credit. He's one of those guys, in my opinion, that has always been under the radar in the eyes of everybody—which I don't understand because he's the most dominant player in this league to me. I think he's great. He knows he's taken for granted in that aspect. And then even his leadership, I feel like people don't appreciate that enough. He was very willing to take me under his wing, which you don't find guys very willing to take a young guy under their wing like that—fifth-round draft pick from a small school. He's a very underrated guy and he doesn't get enough credit."
The admiration and respect that Nichols has for Hicks is clearly mutual. It was evident on Nichols' interception against the Lions. As soon as he was tackled, the first teammate to greet him was Hicks, who was not in on the play but bolted from the sideline to celebrate with Nichols.
"It is hard not to just smile from ear to ear when you see a guy come from not being a high draft pick and coming in with the right mindset," Hicks said. "That's one of the things that attracted me to Bilal from the beginning is that he had the right mindset to approach the game. He wanted to be better. He would be on my hip at practice, like, 'What are we doing? How did you do this?' He sought the knowledge. To now see it coming out on the field, it's beautiful. It makes you smile, man. It's a good feeling."