Bears' Nick Williams goes from out of NFL to critical next man up with Bilal Nichols out

Bears' Nick Williams goes from out of NFL to critical next man up with Bilal Nichols out

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.” 

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NFL and NFLPA reportedly making progress towards new labor agreement

USA Today

NFL and NFLPA reportedly making progress towards new labor agreement

According to a report by Mark Maske of The Washington Post, the NFL and NFLPA “have made meaningful progress towards a new labor agreement.” 

There is plenty to unpack as negotiations progress, but the most significant tidbit from this news is that there is reportedly a real possibility the eventual agreement will expand the NFL’s regular season schedule to 17 games (while eliminating games from the preseason).

Such an agreement would represent a compromise between the league and the NFLPA. According to Maske, owners had been pushing for an 18-game regular season, but the players union has remained reluctant to budge off the current 16-game schedule. Maske flagged the league’s rookie compensation scale and current marijuana policy as areas in which the owners could give ground in order to persuade the players to agree to an expanded schedule.

The report also lists a 14-team playoff field as a potential inclusion in the agreement.

The current NFL CBA — which was agreed to in 2011 — is valid through the end of the 2020 season, but Maske reports that there is “optimism” a new agreement might be reached by the end of the 2019-20 postseason.

There’s something special going on at the University of Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

There’s something special going on at the University of Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

For the first time in the Lovie Smith era, Illinois is bowl-eligible. 

It’s been a long, strange trip here for Lovie and the Illini. In his first three years at the helm of the program, the team failed to top four wins in a single season, amassing a combined record of 9-27 (4-23 B1G). But something about this 2019 group, which currently sits at 6-4 (4-3 B1G), feels different.

Take it from those who know Lovie best.

“They’ve bought in,” Alex Brown, who played under Smith for six years with the Bears, recently said. “Lovie is changing the culture down there, and he’s getting everybody to believe.”

That belief was on full display in the Illini’s matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing last Saturday — a comeback victory of historic proportions that clinched the program a bowl berth for the first time since 2014. At one point trailing 28-3, the visitors rode a number of big plays, turnovers and big-play turnovers to storm back and snap a 37-34 victory from the jaws of certain defeat.

“When you play for Lovie, everybody is motivated… You’re never out of [a] game,” Matt Forte, five years a student of Smith in Chicago, said. “You can be down, and he knows that one play by anybody can start the turn of events.”

Olin Kreutz was with the Bears for seven of Smith's nine years coaching the team. “It was awesome to see Coach Smith get that win, because you know how hard he works at it,” he said. “And for his team to do it in a way that’s kind of ‘Lovie Ball’... It’s just what you expect from Coach Smith because that’s what he preaches.”

Illinois turned Michigan State over four times on Saturday, including a fourth quarter pick-six that cut the Spartans’ lead to just one point with 4:53 to play. On the season, the Illini lead the FBS in total turnovers (26), defensive touchdowns (6) and are second in turnover margin (1.4). Add those gaudy figures (and a bowl appearance) to a campaign already highlighted by a last-second victory over then-No. 6 Wisconsin, and suddenly, it might be time to start thinking about a full-blown resurgence in Urbana-Champaign.

“The most dangerous thing for that whole conference is a team that has bought into the Lovie system,” Lance Briggs, who spent eight years as a linebacker under Smith in Chicago, said. “The players that are going to come and play at the University of Illinois know now that they’re walking into a team that believes in what they’re doing, and when they believe in what they’re doing, great things are going to continue to happen.”

Smith has certainly proven in the past — and to the people of Chicago, no less — that he’s capable of executing this type of turnaround.

“I’m sure you guys have heard this story about our '05 team and how we started out 1-3, and then all of a sudden. Boom. It just happened,” Brown said. “That is exactly what I see happening with U of I right now.”

All the program has accomplished in 2019 is a great step, but the hope is that even greater things are on the horizon.

“You wait ’til next year. They are going to compete, and they’re gonna beat — I’m calling that right now — they’re gonna beat either Michigan or Ohio State next year,” Brown continued. “They have the people there. More importantly, they have the belief that they can beat ’em.”

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