Part 3 of an 11-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.
Bilal Nichols was an unknown when the Bears drafted him in the fifth round last year out of Delaware. The most obvious hook was that he went to the same college as coach Matt Nagy.
‘‘For his size [6-4, 290 pounds], he’s athletic,’’ general manager Ryan Pace said after drafting Nichols. ‘‘The toughness and rugged style he plays with stands out. We just feel like he has a lot of upside, specifically as an inside rusher, which we value, too.’’
What Nichols offered was versatility. He played in 4-3 and 3-4 defenses at Delaware and was equipped to play tackle and end. Coming into a well-established Bears defense under Vic Fangio, that versatility came in handy.
After being inactive in the opener against the Packers, Nichols quickly emerged as a rotation player, then became a starter for most of the second half of the season. He finished with 28 tackles, three sacks, seven quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and five tackles for loss.
Finding Nichols with the 145th pick of the draft — a small but not insignificant contribution to Pace winning Executive of the Year — is a big reason why a defensive lineman would be a luxury pick in this draft.
The Bears are pretty well set, with playmakers in defensive end Akiem Hicks and nose tackle Eddie Goldman and depth in Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard. And only Hicks (29) is close to 30. Goldman is 25. Nichols will turn 23 on Sept. 14. Robertson-Harris will turn 26 on July 23. Bullard, who faces a battle for his roster spot in training camp, is 25.
And in an offseason with a huge departure at the top in Fangio, the return of defensive line coach Jay Rodgers might end up being significant. Rodgers received a lot of credit for his work with all the defensive linemen — from Hicks on down — last season.
While defensive line is not a priority for the Bears in this draft — especially if they remain with just five picks — it’s a deep position in the draft, particularly at tackle.
A defensive tackle hasn’t been taken in the top 10 since 2011, when the Bills took Alabama’s Marcell Dareus at No. 3. The previous year, Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy went second and third to the Lions and Buccaneers, respectively.
Alabama’s 6-3, 303-pound Quinnen Williams, who had 19½ tackles for loss and eight sacks last season, is likely to go among the top four and might be the first defensive tackle to go No. 1 overall since Ohio State’s Dan Wilkinson (to the Bengals) in 1994.
Grading the Bears’ need: Very low. The Bears have quality and decent depth. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a surprise if general manager Ryan Pace took a flier on a player he thinks has slipped too far. This front seven makes almost anybody a potential surprise contributor.
On the roster: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris, Jonathan Bullard, Nick Williams, Abdullah Anderson.
The five best draftees: Alabama DT Quinnen Williams, Houston DT Ed Oliver, Mississippi State DE Montez Sweat, Michigan DE Rashan Gary, Clemson DT Christian Wilkins.
Keep an eye on: Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (6-6, 295) is rated a notch below the elite prospects but has intriguing size, speed and quickness and could blossom in the right defense. He didn’t have eye-popping numbers last season (seven sacks), but he played through a labrum injury he suffered in September and is coming off surgery to repair it.
Close to home: East St. Louis graduate Terry Beckner was the No. 1 player in the state and one of the top prospects in the nation when he went to Missouri. Torn ACLs in his freshman and sophomore seasons set him back, but he overcame those injuries to re-establish himself as an NFL prospect. He’s projected as a mid-round pick.
‘‘It didn’t do anything to me but make me stronger as a person,’’ Beckner said at the NFL Scouting Combine. ‘‘I’m a hard-working kid. I play with violence. [I’m] someone who’s going to come in and work from Day 1.’’