Bilal Nichols

Bilal Nichols eyes an even bigger impact for Bears in 2019

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USA Today

Bilal Nichols eyes an even bigger impact for Bears in 2019

Even if Bilal Nichols repeated his 2018 performance in 2019, the Bears would be lauded for unearthing a solid rotational player with a fifth-round draft pick. But Nichols isn’t resting on his rookie accomplishments, and is aiming to be an even more impactful player on the Bears’ defensive line as he enters Year 2 in the NFL. 

“More consistent, more dominant,” Nichols said. “That’s the biggest thing for me right now.”

Nichols was a top-50 run defender in the NFL last year, as rated by Pro Football Focus — he made a “stop” on 8.7 percent of his run defense plays, ranking 44th in the league (PFF defines a “stop” as a play that constitutes a failure for the offense). For reference, Akiem Hicks ranked eighth at 13.3 percent, Eddie Goldman was 17th at 11.6 percent and Jonathan Bullard came in 40th at 9.1 percent. 

Nichols’ biggest “stop” came in the Bears’ narrow Week 3 win over the Arizona Cardinals, in which he dropped running back Chase Edmonds for a three-yard loss on a third-and-two play inside Bears territory just after the two-minute warning. While Nichols debuted a week earlier against the Seattle Seahawks and recorded a pressure of Russell Wilson, that play against the Cardinals was critical in an important victory for the Bears. It also proved to Nichols that what he was doing was beginning to work. 

“That was really a situation where I had cut it loose and went,” Nichols said. “I knew what i was doing on that play, I knew the possible things I could get from the offense and that was just a situation where I cut it loose and just played football. And I happened to make a big play. 

“I can’t wait to do that this year.” 

Nichols, as he was figuring out how to form a routine and study opponents in the NFL after making the jump from FCS-level Delaware, played a shade under a third of the Bears’ snaps last year as part of a rotation that proved critical to the team’s defensive success. Hicks played the most snaps (780), followed by Goldman (552) and Roy Robertson-Harris (353). Nichols (328) pushed Bullard (298) to the bottom of the rotation, which helped keep members of Jay Rodgers’ unit fresh and at their most effective when they were on the field. 

The Bears’ defensive line is arguably their best and deepest unit, one which can collapse pockets and stymie opposing run games (the latter of which is especially important, given the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions’ renewed commitments to running the ball this year). Nichols was already a big part of it in 2018, and may be an even bigger part of it in 2019. 

“Last year, I was still trying to figure things out, still trying to figure the league out, figure myself out as a player,” Nichols said. “And now that I got everything figured out, I’m just able to go. I could just play and play fast and cut it loose.”

Bears grades and needs: D-line looks set, from Akiem Hicks to Bilal Nichols

Bears grades and needs: D-line looks set, from Akiem Hicks to Bilal Nichols

2018 depth chart

1. Akiem Hicks
Usage: 16 games, 74.1 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $10.1 million cap hit

Hicks is one of the very best interior defensive linemen in the NFL, leading all players at his position with 34 run stops (defined by Pro Football Focus as tackles that constitute a loss for the offense) while contributing eight sacks and 53 pressures. He finally earned the Pro Bowl bid he’s deserved for years and will remain an anchor of the Bears’ defense as it transitions from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano. That he played nearly three-quarters of the Bears' defensive snaps, too, is a testmant to A) how tough is was to take him off the field and B) how well he conditioned himself to be able to play that much. 

2. Eddie Goldman
Usage: 16 games, 52.5 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $7.55 million cap hit

With so much star power highlight reel appearances surrounding him, Goldman perhaps was under-appreciated outside the walls of Halas Hall. But inside the Bears’ facility, Goldman’s impact was celebrated. His ability to absorb interior double teams allowed inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith to shoot gaps and each rack up over 100 tackles, and coupled with Hicks few teams were able to effectively run the ball on the Bears. 

While Goldman indeed only played a little over half of the Bears’ defensive snaps, that was possible because of good depth behind him. Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers — the lone position coach holdover from Fangio’s staff — crafted a plan that allowed Goldman to stay healthy, fresh and effective all season. With Pagano keeping the Bears’ 3-4 base scheme, Goldman will still have a highly important role a year after signing a four-year, $42.04 million contract with $25 million guaranteed. 

3. Roy Robertson-Harris
Usage: 16 games, 33.6 percent of defensive snaps, 27.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Robertson-Harris’ 28 pressures tied for fourth on the team behind the three guys you’d expect to be ahead of him (Khalil Mack, Hicks, Leonard Floyd). He was a disruptive presence able to play just about every defensive line technique, and he used his 6-foot-7 length to bat down two passes, too. 

Robertson-Harris will turn 26 in late July and could still have some untapped potential as a defensive lineman, a position he switched to only a few years ago. 

4. Bilal Nichols
Usage: 14 games, 31.2 percent of defensive snaps, 5.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $644,870 cap hit

Nichols came up with one of the biggest plays in the early part of the Bears’ season when he dropped Cardinals running back for a three-yard loss on third-and-two just after the two-minute warning, with Arizona driving in Bears territory. From there, Nichols was good for a few plays per game, immediately fitting in as an adept rotational player a few months removed from being a fifth-round pick.

Nichols tied with Robertson-Harris for fifth on the team with four sacks, and in Week 17 he thoroughly terrorized Minnesota’s offensive line: Four hurries, two hits and one sack (after the sack, he mimicked the “Viking Clap” to a largely empty U.S. Bank Stadium). Ryan Pace appears to have unearthed a solid contributor in Nichols, someone who will be a key part of the team’s defensive line rotation again in 2019. 

5. Jonathan Bullard
Usage: 16 games, 28.3 percent of defensive snaps, 15.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1,026,630 cap hit

Bullard hasn’t quite capitalized on the potential that led Pace to draft him in the third round back in 2016, and was passed on the depth chart by Robertson-Harris and Nichols last season. He’s adequate against the run and his cap hit is low enough for him to stick on the roster in 2019. 

6. Nick Williams 
Usage: 2 games, 4.2 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Williams won a camp battle to secure a roster spot, but only appeared in two games (Week 1 and Week 9). 

7. Abdullah Anderson
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

The Bucknell alum and 2017 Patriot League defensive player of the year hung around the practice squad in 2018, and will get a shot at sticking in that role in 2019. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 3

Between Hicks, Goldman, Robertson-Harris and Nichols, the Bears have four strong contributors to their defensive line rotation. Add Bullard in there and the “need” lessens, though defensive line is one of those positions where you can never have too many bodies. 

Previous grades and needs: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | OL

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The Bears' plan to improve their NFL-leading defense

The Bears' plan to improve their NFL-leading defense

When you’re the best defense in the NFL, can you get better? The Bears and their new defensive coordinator think so.
 
But with the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player and without a pick in the first two rounds of the draft (the rounds in which they procured four starters over the last five drafts), the opportunities for the exponential leap that came with the trade for Khalil Mack and the selection of Roquan Smith last offseason are next to nil.
 
Still, “our vision for this defense is to be the best,” said Chuck Pagano upon arrival to succeed Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator. “Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there and they will continue to add pieces. Can we continue to be better than we were last year? Absolutely.”
 
The Bears can’t improve on their defensive ranking; hard to go up from No. 1. But the ’86 Bears put up better numbers than the more celebrated ’85 group – under a different coordinator. The Seattle Seahawks ranked No. 1 in scoring defense four straight years (2012-15), No. 3 in 2016, and Top 5 in yardage allowed all five years from 2012-2016, reaching at least the divisional round of the playoffs all five years, going to two Super Bowls and winning one (2013) – with three different defensive coordinators.
 
So excellence is sustainable. But if you aren’t moving forward, you’re falling behind, because someone (Minnesota? Dallas? The Chargers? Broncos? All are on the Bears’ 2019 schedule). “It's an old cliché’,” said GM Ryan Pace, “but you're never staying the same. You're getting better or getting worse. We need to make sure we're getting better.”
 
Before the 2018 season, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks stated that a Top 10 Bears defense of 2017 could ascend into the Top 5. And it did, with talent additions in the persons of Mack and Smith. And what Pagano has heard (legally) from his players is, “'We can be better, I can get better,'” Pagano said.
 
But how can “better” happen?
 
Offseason talk is easy. In-season getting-better, not so much.
 
Consider:
 
The Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways, five more than No. 2 Cleveland. Their 27 interceptions were more than their previous three seasons’ combined and the most in more than a quarter-century.
 
Mack in 13 games (two missed, one hobbled) posted the second-highest sack total (12.5) of his career, had a career-high 6 forced fumbles, and a career-best 4 passes defensed, to go with his second career interception and TD return.
 
Kyle Fuller’s 7 interceptions, one fewer than the total for the three previous seasons in which he played, tied for NFL honors and his 21 passes defensed led the league.
 
In just 14 games, Eddie Jackson delivered 6 interceptions (fourth in the NFL), two returned for touchdowns, plus a fumble return for a TD.
 
Prince Amukamara matched his career high with 3 interceptions. Adrian Amos’ 2 picks doubled his career total from three previous seasons. Roquan Smith went to the Pro Bowl with a team-leading 122 tackles.
 
All of which leading to a question as to how much better can a defense be after at least half of its starting members had equaled or exceeded their previous personal-bests.
 
A plan to for “better”
 
Interestingly, several players had “down” years, not as strong as previous peaks hit. Therein lie the obvious potentials for “better.”
 
Hicks was voted to the Pro Bowl after compiling 7.5 sacks, down from 8 the previous year. He felt he was stronger in 2017.
 
Leonard Floyd needed surgery to repair a fractured right hand, resulting in his starting the season with his hand in a large, cumbersome wrap. He went eight games without a sack, then had four in the next six games. The four sacks fell well short of the 7 over his 12-game rookie season.
 
“Even if he’s not flashy in the way you would want to see your outside linebacker flashing,” Hicks said, “he’s scaring offenses. So he already put that intimidation factor in there, and then to come up with the plays on top of that, the sky’s the limit for that guy.”
 
Nickel corner Bryce Callahan was lost to IR for the final three and playoff games. Rookie tackle Bilal Nichols had 2.5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits over the final eight games, earning a starting spot by game 10.
 
The Bears lost more than one-third of their 2017 sack total over the 2018 offseason, then offset most of it back with Mack. Since he has had four straight seasons of double-digit sacks, that range of production ls a reasonable expectation. More from Floyd, Nichols and Smith (5) project as the source of “better” for an already elite unit. 
 
To that end, Pagano has brought with him a plan.
 
“Our goal and our mindset will be to come in here and get better every single day at something,” Pagano said. “We will be intentional and we will be deliberate with everything that we do and the coaches will come up with a prescription and just like to the doctor and you're sick and he writes you a script for something.
 
“We will give these players, every one of them a ‘prescription’ and it will be just three precise, condensed things. We all can get better physically, mentally, knowing an understanding the game, knowing and understanding the playbook, the calls, the opponents. Guys will grow, guys will become better pros, we will get better off the field, we will get better on the field.”