Bilal Nichols and the Baby Steps for Success in Chicago


During the pre-draft process for the 2018 NFL Draft, Bilal Nichols did himself wonders. It all started during the East-West Shrine Game, where he entered as just a product of the Delaware Blue Hens. By the time the Shrine Game was over, Bilal Nichols had given his draft stock a significant boost, so much so that he was invited to the 2018 Senior Bowl.

At the Senior Bowl, Nichols replaced Nathan Shepard (broken hand) and had a good week. It wasn’t as strong as his Shrine week, but he was battle-tested against players such as Wyatt Teller and Isaiah Wynn. He proved that he had plenty of versatility and showed that he had a nice blend of power and speed. Overall, he had a good draft process and an even better career for the Blue Hens. In 44 career games at Delaware, Nichols had 21 starts and compiled 104 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks.

All of this was good enough to get him drafted 145th overall to the Chicago Bears in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. I think that was the right value for Nichols, but despite only being a fifth-round pick, he’s already shown his promise during his rookie season. It wasn’t a sensational season, but in 2018 Bilal Nichols started taking the baby steps that are needed for success in the NFL. Let’s jump into film and see why:

Run Stop vs. Buccaneers Aligned as 3-technique (3T) 

Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week four, Nichols had one of his best performances of the season. He finished with three tackles and one sack against the Bucs. Whenever you watch Nichols, the first thing that stands out is his versatility along the defensive line. No matter the front, he can find a spot to play. For starters, we take a look at him playing as a three-technique.

Explosiveness is important for defensive linemen. If you can win off the snap, you can win a lot of the reps that you’re on the field for. On the play above, Nichols is aligned as a three-technique (3T) in a 3-4 Bear Front. He explodes off the snap and, while lined up on the outside shoulder of the left guard, he crosses his face and penetrates the A-gap. In the process, the guard steps to his left and exposes his inside shoulder for Nichols to rip through. He does that and follows through, despite his pad level being too high, and ends up making the tackle in the backfield.

Again as a three-technique (3T), Bilal Nichols is on the outside shoulder of the left guard. The Bears are aligned in a 3-4 Strong front and are matched with the tight end to the right side of the offense. On the play above, watch Nichols play with good pad level but also maintain leverage while keeping his head in the backfield. His head starts on the outside shoulder with his hands having control on the chest plate of the guard. He then works back inside to where the play goes in the A-gap. In week 8 against the Jets, Nichols had three tackles and one quarterback hurry.

Read and Stop Screen Pass Aligned as the Nose Tackle

Being able to read screen passes is so important for defensive linemen. More often than not, you get a free release from the offensive line. As they move up to the second level, defensive linemen get wide eyes and chase after the quarterback. In reality, you want to stay at “home base”, or at the heels of the offensive lineman once you get that free release. Sometimes, though, the releases from the offensive linemen are delayed and you still end up getting beat, so it’s always important to keep your eyes on the running back.

Going back to the game against the Buccaneers, Nichols shows his ability to read the screen pass and the range to chase it down. Back to being aligned as the zero technique, AKA the nose tackle, you can see how Nichols plays at the line of scrimmage and reads the running back out of the backfield. He flashes his motor and makes a great play on the football.

Swim Move Sack against the Lions as the Zero-Shade 

We all want a defensive lineman who can rush the passer. It’s a passing league, and being disruptive to quarterbacks is far more important than stopping the run. It’s the stat that everyone pays attention to, and for Bilal Nichols, he had three sacks during his rookie season. In week 10 against the Lions, he had his second sack of the year on the play below.

Nichols is aligned in a zero-shade. Some will consider him a one-technique, and that’s fine, but he’s shaded on the outside of the center, therefore, zero-shade. Either way, he starts his path towards the left guard and starts penetrating upfield. Once he makes contact with the left guard, he uses a swim move and gets free. By freeing himself, he gets a clear path to Matthew Stafford and brings him down for the sack.

B-gap For the Win

To make life harder for offensive coordinators, the defense will align inside the gap rather than stacking on one of the offensive linemen. You have your A-gap (between the center and guard), B-gap (between the guard and tackle) and C-gap (between the tackle and tight end). There’s a D-gap and so on, but that’s a topic for a different day.

On the play above it’s close, and you could make a case that Nichols is aligned as a zero-shade or one-technique. In my opinion, he’s more centered into the B-gap, and that’s what I would label him: a B-gap player. With that being said, you can see how quickly Nichols gets upfield. He’s penetrating the backfield and forcing the center to find a way to anchor. Much like we’ve seen, Nichols plays with good leverage and works his hands back inside while keeping his eyes in the backfield. He does a tremendous job and forces the running back to try and bounce outside, but he’s there the entire way and makes the play in the backfield.

Run Stop vs. Giants Aligned in 4-technique

We’ve now seen Nichols aligned directly into the gap and shaded on the center or guard. We finally get him aligned head-up on an offensive lineman, and this creates an even matchup, in my opinion. As long as the offensive lineman isn’t pulling, it creates that one-on-one battle we love. With the play below, Nichols is aligned as a four-technique (4T) or head-up on the left tackle. In week 13 against the Giants, Nichols had his best run defense grade of 1.4 (from PFF). Here’s one of the plays where he makes a big stop from that game:

Nichols does a really good job stepping hard to his right, and this forces the left tackle to false step. As the left tackle tries to create separation with his left arm, Nichols clubs the hand away and works his way to the backfield with his effort and bend. By getting to the heels of the offensive linemen, he puts himself in the best position to make a play on the football and does just that.

Final Thoughts 

It’s always fun going back and looking at previous draft classes. It really helps you determine which players you hit on and which ones you missed. Sometimes, it even gives you a moment to find out which players weren’t even on your radar. Bilal Nichols was one of those players. Outside of the Senior Bowl he wasn’t on my radar, and beyond the Senior Bowl I never went down the film trail to find out more about him. Now I regret it.

When studying the tape from his rookie year, Bilal Nichols showed improvement every week. This put him in position to be on the field more, and with time, we’ll be talking about him even more. He’s got a solid first step and shows the ability to maintain leverage at the point of attack. His versatility really stands out, as well. Whether the Bears are in a bear front or a wide front, Nichols can play anywhere. He’ll have to lower his pad level more consistently, but overall, his rookie season was a good one that nobody talked about.

The fifth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft finished with 28 tackles and three sacks. That’s better than Taven Bryan, P.J. Hall, Nathan Shepard, Justin Jones, and R.J. McIntosh. All of these defensive tackles were drafted before Nichols with the 145th pick. Based on what I’ve seen from Nichols, the future is bright. He’s shown the ability to play at a high level and now has to become more consistent. For now, he’s taking the baby steps toward success, so it won’t be surprising when he emerges as yet another talented player on the already-talented Chicago Bears defense.


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