Entering last year's draft, one prominent football analyst graded defensive tackle Bilal Nichols as an NFL backup or potential special-teams contributor.
Selected by the Bears in the fifth round out of Delaware, Nichols exceeded those expectations as a rookie. The 6-4, 290-pounder earned a starting job on one of the league's best defenses and was ultimately named to the ESPN.com NFL All-Rookie Team.
"It's definitely something I used as motivation and still [do] to this day," Nichols said about his draft projection Tuesday night on the Bears All-Access radio show on WSCR-AM 670. "That fueled me. I knew what I was capable of."
Showing consistent development throughout his rookie season, Nichols appeared in 14 games with six starts for the NFC North champions, recording 28 tackles, three sacks, five tackles-for-loss, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
"The coaching staff helped me out tremendously when I got to Chicago," Nichols said, "helped me reach my potential, and I'm nowhere close to where I want to be, which is awesome. But it's good to see the hard work that I put in pay off."
Nichols will play for a new defensive coordinator in 2019, with Chuck Pagano replacing Vic Fangio, who left the Bears to become head coach of the Denver Broncos. Nichols is eager to begin working with Pagano, but the 22-year-old is also happy that his position coach, Jay Rodgers, has been retained.
"It's awesome that coach Jay is still here," Nichols said. "He's helped me out tremendously. I owe a lot of the credit to him and the vets for my progress [last] year and the things that I was able to do. He's a guy that always kept things straight up with me. He would tell me what I would need to work on, tell me when I did things good and tell me when I did them bad. There's a level of respect there. I really appreciate him as a coach. He's one of those guys that prepares like he's a player or even better. He's all in every week. He comes in and he works hard just like we do. I'm very grateful to still have him here."
Nichols intends to improve in his second NFL season, starting with honing a fundamental aspect of his game.
"One of the things that I've been really focused on is my pad level," Nichols said. "When I played with great pad level I was a very great player, and there were times when I could have played with better pad level and it would have made me a better player.
"Pad level is the most important thing for a defensive lineman; simply being lower than the man you're going against. For bigger and taller guys, it's more natural for you to stand up. But if you stand up, you're going to get knocked off the ball a little bit. So it's all about pad level and keeping that leverage and not getting pushed or giving up any ground."