Rookie review: Chicago Bears fifth-round DL Bilal Nichols coming on like gangbusters
It took over a week, but we’ve finally figured out the impetus behind Akiem Hicks’ disqualification for shoving an official in the Bears’ Week 4 undressing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It wasn’t the result of Hicks’ frustration boiling over after a fiery exchange beyond the echo of the whistle with Bucs LG Ali Marpet. No, it was Hicks — the Bears’ Defensive MVP each of the past two seasons — recognizing that fourth-round rookie Bilal Nichols needed more playing time after his first splash play against Arizona, in only his second NFL game one week earlier.
OK, we might be fibbing about the first part, and the Bears’ making Week 4 noncompetitive before halftime surely contributed to Nichols’ spike in playing time from 17 combined snaps in his first two NFL appearances to 33 vs. the Bucs.
But we’re not kidding about the exceedingly bright flashes Nichols has now shown in the Bears’ past two games, when he tallied 3 tackles for loss and a half-sack. Not to pick on starting DRE Jonathan Bullard, the 72nd overall pick in the 2016 draft, but Nichols (selected 145th overall in April) already has become a more disruptive and versatile force in a lot fewer snaps (86 to 50) only three games into his career.
In the aftermath of the Bears’ biggest rout in 38 years, we talked a lot about Mitch Trubisky and Khalil Mack, to be sure. We hit on the offensive line’s best day, including the part played by James Daniels in his NFL debut on offense, and top pick Roquan Smith’s continued emergence.
So let’s spend a few minutes discussing Nichols, the under-the-radar rookie, before Ryan Pace’s potentially next great mid-round secret’s fully out.
One of the more exciting aspects of Nichols’ play over the past two games is the way he’s affecting the run and pass from multiple alignments. Before we get to Nichols’ true breakout two Sundays ago, take a look at the penetration he gets on a third-and-2 tackle for loss. in Week 3. This is the first play after Arizona reaches the plus side of the field since its 14-0 lead devolved into a 16-14 deficit late in the fourth quarter.
No. 98 Nichols (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) shows juice but also opportunism in getting past rookie C Mason Cole, the Michigan product, who tries to help out the left guard battling Akiem Hicks. This is the kind of disruptiveness showed at Delaware, where his production behind the line increased in each of his four seasons.
Fast-forward to early in the third quarter of the Week 4 blowout, just two series after Hicks’ ejection. Nichols, now aligned in Hicks’ familiar five-technique spot, bull rushes the Bucs’ right guard and meets fellow five-tech Roy Robertson-Harris at Jameis Winston for his first career half-sack. Again, not only the strength to put Bucs RG Caleb Benenoch on skates and the versatility to move from over the nose to over the tackle but the relentlessness to finish the deal.
On the very next play, Nichols kicks across the line to the under tackle position and shows off tremendous explosion for a four-yard TFL of Bucs second-round rookie RB Ronald Jones. Unlike on the play prior, the blocker Nichols wastes with an instant inside move, Ali Marpet, isn’t some slouch — the four-year vet and former second-rounder out of tiny Hobart signed a five-year, $55 million extension on Tuesday.
Nichols is now tied with Hicks and Khalil Mack for the team lead with three TFLs. That’s called efficiency and capitalizing on one’s chances. And although Bullard and Robertson-Harris also have played well, don’t be surprised when Nichols’ recent surge and ability to play multiple positions earn him more chances as soon as this Sunday in Miami.
Of course, the expectations have risen for the 3-1 Bears. Although many were almost incessantly focused on the offseason comparisons not only to the Rams but the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles, those were almost all tied to parallels between their offenses. If Nichols, like Robertson Harris, is just scratching the surface of what he can become, it’ll soon be time to start talking about the Bears’ D-line depth in similar terms to the front in Philadelphia, too.