After the 2018 NFL draft, there was a ton of excitement for the Bears’ draft. Bears fans, draft twitter, and even the national media praised general manager Ryan Pace for landing three potential starters in Roquan Smith, James Daniels and Anthony Miller. And rightfully so given those players track record and success in college.
Even late rounders Kylie Fitts and Javon Wims garnered some training camp and preseason praise.
Fifth-rounder Bilal Nichols received some praise but was otherwise looked over. He was drafted right around where he was projected. In fact, some might have said it was even a little too early for him.
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com had a fifth- or sixth-round grade on Nichols and said he “has an opportunity to become a backup” as his best case scenario.
He didn’t see the field much in the first three games, but after Akiem Hicks was ejected in Week 4, he finally got a chance to show what he can do. And the early returns were excellent.
In only 33 snaps Nichols accumulated three tackles, two stops and a sack. His performance earned him the second highest defensive grade for the Bears (no shame in coming in second to Khalil Mack) with a grade of 83.6 according to Pro Football Focus.
Despite Nichols ending the game with some good numbers, there are still some areas he can improve upon.
When Pace was asked about Nichols after the draft, he had high praise for the young defensive linemen.
“We just feel he has a lot of upside, specifically as an inside rusher, which we value,” Pace said.
This was high praise for the young player and it did not take long for veterans to realize this as well. Fellow defensive linemen Eddie Goldman also reiterated positive comments about Nichols to The Athletic back in the preseason.
“It’s going to take some more games to fill it out, but he’s definitely a fast learner,” Goldman told Athletic reporter Kevin Fishbain. “His pass-rush moves are on a veteran level.”
Nichols didn’t disappoint in his first time playing meaningful snaps. In the play below, he used a bull rush to walk the right guard back into the quarterback. He lines up as a 4-technique and is a little slow off the snap. But after a stutter step, he is able to get his hands underneath the guard’s pads while keeping his pad level low and his feet churning to pressure Jameis Winston.
He ends up splitting the sack with Roy Robertson-Harris, but it was Nichols’ initial pressure that forced Winston to his left.
Goldman said he was a fast learner, and this move is a great example. He must have been watching and learning from teammate Akiem Hicks as he used a similar pass rush move earlier in the season against the Packers.
— DLineVids (@DLineVids) September 10, 2018
In addition to the bull rush, Nichols also displayed quick, violent hands. Most young pass rushers don’t have refined hand technique, and while he is far from perfect, Nichols has shown he has an understanding of how to use his hands effectively.
Here he is lined up as a 3-technique over the outside shoulder of the right guard.
Even though he doesn’t get a sack or even a pressure here, it is still an encouraging sign.
Again, Nichols copied a move that Hicks uses often. In fact, Hicks used a similar move earlier in this game to pick up a sack.
Quick First Step
The very next play after Nichols’ sack, the Buccaneers try and catch the Bears sleeping with a handoff to get some yards back on second-and-17.
He lines up as the 3-technique on the outside shoulder of the right guard. He gets a great jump and is able to beat the guard to his inside shoulder. Crossing the face of a guard like this without being touched isn’t just a good play, it shows rare athleticism and get off for an interior player.
What is outstanding, is that Nichols was able to do this against Ali Marpet, an ascending young player and PFF’s fifth-rated guard this season.
Coming from a small school, one of the concerns I had for Nichols was his readiness to diagnose the complex play calling of an NFL offense. He didn’t exactly face groundbreaking offenses playing against teams like Elon, Hofstra, and College of Charleston in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).
But he showed good awareness a few times in this game.
Here he is lined up right over the center as the 0-technique. The Bucs run a screen and Nichols is one of the first to recognize it. Most young defensive linemen don’t make this play. But Nichols’ awareness and quickness allow him to be in a position to make a play behind the line of scrimmage.
Wait, pass rush was in the good and needs improvement category? Yes you read that right.
He really did have some good pass rush reps. But he also had some bad ones as well. This type of inconsistency is common, and expected, from rookies. Especially, ones from smaller schools. The hope is over time he will start to have more good and less bad.
My biggest issue with Nichols as a pass rusher is his lack of a plan. He has a few good moves like his bull rush and quick hands displayed above, but if his initial move does not work, he does not have a counter move to get off blocks.
I’ll use the same video I posted above to illustrate this.
His initial hand use is great, but after that, he has no plan of attack. He needs to stack moves together and develop counters if he wants to become a more consistent pass rusher.
On more than one occasion, Nichols tried to shoot a gap to make a big play instead of maintaining his gap. In the play below he lines up as a 3-technique. Now, the 3-technique’s job is to generate internal pressure, but Nichols needs to take the situation into account.
Instead, he shoots the gap and is easily walked out of the play by the guard. This leaves a huge hole. The center isn’t able to get his hands on Danny Trevathan, but if he does, the runner likely winds up with a big gain.
If you look at the other defensive linemen, they are all playing run from the snap and appear to be playing 2-gap while Nichols is one gapping.
It’s an encouraging start to a young career, but many players have shown flashes in their rookie year before flaming out. As he gets more playing time those flashes need to occur more often.
Luckily, Nichols couldn’t ask for a better teammate in Hicks to learn from and model his game. Remember, Hicks also came from a small school and took a few years to really put it all together. It’s possible Nichols doesn’t reach his full potential for a few years as well. But he has shown he has enough ability to contribute right now.
He won’t push Goldman or Hicks for a starting spot any time soon, although Nichols’ ability to play multiple techniques up and down the defensive line makes him a valuable backup.
In this game, he lined up at 0,1,3,4, and 5 technique. Which means he can backup not only Hicks but Goldman as well. If the Bears are expected to make a deep playoff run, then keeping players fresh will be key.
Nichols’ versatility allows them to do just that.
He showed enough in this game to earn himself an increased workload. After the bye week, it would not surprise me if he starts getting more playing time at the expense of Jonathan Bullard.
Whatever his role may be, it looks like Pace might have found another steal in the middle rounds of the draft.