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For a fifth-round draft pick, Bears rookie DE Bilal Nichols has made a surprising contribution to one of the NFL’s best defenses.
Nichols made his third start against the Giants last week and had a career-best six tackles on 41 snaps, more than the combined playing time of the two defensive linemen he’s been sharing time with -- Jonathan Bullard (16) and Roy Robertson-Harris (17). The three youngsters play in a rotation behind starters Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, but Nichols appears to have moved past the other two.
Bears DL coach Jay Rodgers scouted the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Nichols last year at Delaware, so he says he’s not surprised by the 22-year-old’s success.
“I think what you saw on tape is what you get on the field,” Rodgers said. “He’s got really good traits, he’s long and he plays with a (good) pad level and plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
Coming from Delaware, Nichols did not play against many NFL-caliber players, so he faced a sizeable jump in competition when he got to his first training camp in July.
“You have to bring your best on every play,” he said. “In college, I did a lot of things where I really didn’t understand what the other team was giving me. But just because of my athleticism and strength, I was able to make plays. Here you have to be really in tune with the game from a mental standpoint. You have to know your opponent, you have to know what to expect. That was something that I really had to grasp onto.”
Rodgers said it didn’t take long for Nichols to adapt.
“I think early on in training camp, or even in the early preseason games, (he) felt like, ‘OK, this is different than Delaware -- a lot different,’ ” Rodgers said. “But, as time has gone on, he’s felt more comfortable and just learning that, ‘I can do this.’ Then you see his confidence grow, and once your confidence grows, then your individual matchups get easier.”
After a modest beginning, Nichols has improved to the point that Rodgers compares his rookie season to NT Eddie Goldman’s rookie season back in 2015, when he was a highly touted second-round pick (39th overall) out of Florida State who started 12 games.
“I think his production is very similar to where Eddie was at as a rookie,” Rodgers said. “I’m not comparing the two players, I’m just saying that the production is close. Bilal continues to improve, he’s a smart kid, he loves football, and he improves every week. That’s why you see his play-time percentage go up because he’s doing a lot of good things.”
After getting just 17 snaps in his first three games, Nichols’ 41 plays last week represented a season high, and the reason is simple – he’s earned it.
This article originally ran on profootballweekly.com.