Nick Williams was drafted six years ago, made his NFL debut a season later and found himself out of football in 2017. Needless to say, the 29-year-old defensive lineman’s path to his first career sack — which came in the fourth quarter of the Bears’ 16-14 win over the Denver Broncos last week — wasn’t exactly easy or straightforward.
The Bears needed Williams as a next man up when defensive lineman Bilal Nichols broke his hand in the first half of Sunday’s game in Denver. The 30 defensive snaps he played tied a career high, set last year while playing for the Bears against the Buffalo Bills (it was one of only two games for which Williams was active in 2018).
While Williams may not have been known to Bears fans outside of the die-hardiest of the die-hards before Sunday, he’s established himself as a popular figure inside the locker room at Halas Hall since being signed off the street prior to the 2018 season.
“That’s my boy,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “You have teammates and friends and then you have lifelong friends, and I feel like Nick is one of those guys just because he has this positive energy that never stops. He’s a hard worker, so if I ever want to get an extra workout in I know who to look at.
"… He’s a great football player and a great teammate. I think that adding him to this room, this defensive line room, two years ago was a big step in how well we’ve developed.”
“He’s worked his butt off,” quarterback Chase Daniel said. “He’s in amazing shape. The guy doesn’t stop working. He’s a beast. His work ethic is second to none.”
“He’s a guy who lives in the weight room, who studies Akiem and is definitely a student of the game,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said.
Players have come to notice just how hard Williams works even when opportunities may not be coming his way. This is a guy who, again, was only active for two games in 2018, yet earned his way on to the Bears’ roster in 2019. He’s the ultimate representation of the next man up mantra that every football team uses, as someone who continually puts in the work necessary to be ready if called upon.
And that work paid off when the Bears needed Williams to take on a larger role in their defensive line rotation on Sunday.
“Nick’s the type of guy that you want on your team,” Daniel, who counts Williams as one of his closest friends, said. “He just works so hard, so guys see that and can emulate it, especially young guys know that, hey, listen, I don’t care what round I’m drafted, I don’t care if I’m a free agent, whatever — as long as I work hard, put my head down, the chips will fall as they may. All I can do is put my best foot forward and take advantage of opportunities as they’re given, and he’s done all of that.”
The Kansas City Chiefs released Williams in October of 2016, and he caught on with the Miami Dolphins in 2017 only to be cut before the start of the season. No team came calling for him after he was released that year, and he didn’t sign with the Bears until mid-April — over a month after the league’s free agency window opened.
Williams said he never lost hope that he’d get another opportunity, even if he knew a time would come where he’d have to make a decision on if he’d ever play football again.
“You start sensing it,” Williams said. “You start sensing it from your friends and family, they’re kind of like ‘okay, Nick, you need to keep — you need to move on, you know what I’m saying?’ Nah, I always knew there was another opportunity out there for me and I just believed it.”
The Bears will need Williams to keep taking advantage of his opportunity in at least the immediate future. Nichols isn’t expected to be placed on injured reserve, but the Bears haven’t determined if he’ll be able to play with a club on his broken hand (as outside linebacker Leonard Floyd did in 2018).
Williams said he feels like an ideal fit for what the Bears want out of their defensive linemen — he’s an adept run stuffer who feels he can get after the quarterback, especially after finally notching his first career sack. And there isn’t doubt inside the Bears’ locker room that Williams will be up to the task.
“His mental fortitude is just out of this world,” Daniel said. “He never, ever for a second as long as I’ve known him doubted that he’d be back in the league — not only be back in the league but playing well. And last year he made the squad but he was inactive a lot, didn’t really get to show what he had and sort of knew. He balled out in preseason. He’s playing really well right now.”