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Bears Saturday Spotlight: Versatile Bilal Nichols making his mark

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at Defensive Lineman Bilal Nichols

NFL: DEC 16 Packers at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Name: Bilal Nichols

Position: Defensive Tackle

Number: 98

Age: 24

Time with Bears: 3 seasons

The Past:

“Rodgers on 3rd and 10, he is...SMOTHERED. Give Mack and Bilal Nichols, the rookie, credit.”

If you’re looking for a young Bears player who’s quickly making a name for himself, look no further than dead center in the defensive line. First, though, you’re going to have to learn how to pronounce that name.

“It’s Nichols” (nickels), “Not Nisholes,” he clarified to Anthony “Spice” Adams leading up to the 2019 season. “And it’s Bilal. Not Beelal. Or Bilol.”

Nichols was born in a rough area of Chester, PA. According to, Chester has a murder rate of 6.74 per 10,000 people, the 2nd highest rate in the country. To keep him safe at a young age, his mother had to move him into his grandparents’ house in a safer area of Chester. Soon after, Bilal and his grandparents moved to Newark, Delaware. That’s where his football career started.

He excelled both on the field and off it at Paul M. Hodgson Vocational Technical High School, playing for veteran coach Frank Moffett. He also was a regular honor roll student. In his senior year in 2013, he was a captain and helped lead his team to the Delaware Division-II State Championship. Then colleges started to call. Coach Moffett helped him through the recruiting process, and Nichols said he actually felt under-recruited by schools, and that drove him to push harder. Eventually he elected to stay in-state and enrolled at the University of Delaware, an FCS school where he could see immediate playing time.

Delaware may not be the the powerhouse college program you expect to be regularly churning out professionals, but their alumni list is actually impressive. Joe Flacco, Zach Kerr, Rich Gannon, Paul Worrilow, Matt Nagy. All from a school that suits up YoUDee, the Fightin’ Blue Hen, as their mascot. Nichols saw playing time as a freshman for coach Dave Brock’s squad, recording 19 total tackles and 9 solo. As a sophomore in 2015, he stepped into a major rotational role as the team’s primary backup at defensive tackle. He had a then-career high of 8 total tackles against LaFayette, and recorded an interception against Towson.

As an upper classman through 2016-17, Nichols became a regular starter on the defensive line at Delaware. He was named a 3rd-team All-American in his senior year, and had 10.5 sacks through his final 2 years of college ball. He also played in the Senior Bowl. Nichols had the size, strength, and talent to make it to the next level, but playing for an FCS school played a part in holding back his draft status. As Nichols played tight end in high school as well as defensive line, his former coach Frank Moffett praised his motor. “Especially for a kid in high school playing both ways, his motor never stopped. He never came off the field.”

On day 3 of the draft, the call came. “How you doing, coach Nagy?...Yeah, go Hens, man!”

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Leading up to his rookie year, Nichols talked more about playing for Coach Nagy. He said that he was happy that the Bears had selected Nagy as their head coach a few months prior, and was excited to contribute to the Bears top-10 defense. He saw plenty of playing time his rookie year for the Bears, mostly coming off the bench. He recorded his first tackle for a loss in his second game as a pro against the Arizona Cardinals. The next game against Tampa Bay, he recorded half a sack. Playing behind pro-bowl defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and standout nose tackle Eddie Goldman, Nichols served as a change-of-pace linemen, stuffing the interior of the line and playing excellent run defense for a Bears squad loaded with pass rushing talent. He finished his rookie season with 20 solo tackles and 3 sacks, outstanding numbers for a role-playing rookie in the NFL.

After defensive coordinator Vic Fangio moved on to the head coaching position in Denver, the Bears hired Chuck Pagano to coach the defense. A new defensive shift meant new roles for players, and Nichols stepped into a base 3-4 starting role as the defensive end opposite Hicks. Early in the 2019 season, Nichols suffered a hand injury against the Broncos, and coach Nagy later confirmed he broke it. He returned a month later but was eased into action, with the Bears already playing “nickel” defense over half the time and therefore keeping him as a rotational piece in their defense. He finished his second year with the Bears with 15 solo tackles, but only 1 tackle for a loss.

The Present:

Starting nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted out of the 2020 NFL season, leaving a 6’ 4” 320 pound gap in the middle of the Bears defense. Rather than spend money on a big free agent signing, the Bears opted to again shift Nichols’ role in their defense, slotting him into a 3-4 nose tackle position he is still learning. On paper, Nichols is the same height as Goldman and only 7 pounds lighter, but their frames are significantly different. Nichols, along with Danny Trevathan and Tashaun Gipson, were early concerns in the Bears run defense this year. Nichols has settled into the nose tackle position much better in recent games, though. He recorded 2 tackles for a loss against the Colts, and recorded his first sack of 2020 the next week against Carolina.

More recently, Nichols played a crucial, albeit underrated role in the Bears’ last game against the New Orleans Saints. He recorded a modest 4 total tackles, but if you re-watch the Saints’ offensive scheme, they ran everything outside. Nichols sealed the inside gaps very well. The Bears will need Nichols to continue to play well through this season, as Goldman cannot opt back in and the Bears are lacking in depth at nose tackle. With backup John Jenkins’ injury concerns so far this year, Nichols will have to show that motor his high school coach praised, and stay on the field.

The future:

Nichols is in the 3rd year of his 4 year rookie deal, and as a day 3 pick who is a flex starter, his long-term contract should be very affordable for the Bears. Bears GM Ryan Pace has been known for offering deals during training camp before year 4 of rookie contracts, so expect negotiations through summer 2021 to be fruitful between Nichols and the Bears. As Nichols has experience starting at Defensive End, Defensive Tackle, and Nose Tackle in this 3-4 scheme, the Bears can’t pass up the opportunity to lock this guy up for at least another 3 years.

In Week 9, the Bears will face their toughest rushing attack of the entire season. Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans host the Bears in Music City. Nichols will be challenged all game long, as the Titans are not likely to drop back and throw 50 passes in this contest. Look for the Bears to stack the box, and Derrick Henry to run through it anyway. Nichols, Hicks, and the Bears linebacker crew should all record plenty of tackles as the Titans pound the rock. Bears fans have to hope those tackles aren’t 10 yards downfield.

Week 9 prediction:

5 total tackles, 2 solo, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble