Bilal Nichols has overachieved since joining the Bears as a fifth-round draft pick from Delaware in 2018. He was a contributor almost immediately and started at defensive end on the top-rated defense in the NFL in the second half of his rookie season.
Now he’s trying to take overachievement to another level.
Nichols, 23, is getting the first shot at replacing the inimitable Eddie Goldman at nose tackle for the Bears, who held their first practice in pads Monday at Halas Hall. Goldman, a two-time Pro Bowl alternate and five-year unsung hero in the defense, opted out of the season because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
His absence leaves a significant hole, but one the Bears can fill and survive better than when they lost defensive end Akiem Hicks last year. Nichols, who played tackle at Delaware, is arguably the most intriguing prospect for the vacancy because he fits the Goldman mold as a strong run-stopper, and he obviously learns quickly.
“Eddie G, he’s a straight-out monster,” the 6-4, 299-pound Nichols said. “He’s a guy I look up to, along with Akiem and guys like that. [He’s] gonna be missed, but I’m ready to step up. I’ve trained hard. I’m ready for this opportunity. I’m ready to just showcase what I can do.
“As far as me playing nose — I played nose a little bit last year and my rookie year, so I’m used to it. It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
The defense suffered when Hicks missed 10 of the final 11 games last season with an elbow injury. But replacing a run-stopper like Goldman might not be as problematic with a strong supporting cast around Nichols. Roy Robertson-Harris appears first in line to play the end opposite Hicks. And the linebacking corps of Khalil Mack, Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn is expected to be stellar.
“Eddie Goldman — I’m very supportive of his [opt-out] move and what he has to do for his future. That’s first,” Hicks said. “Secondly, I would put Eddie Goldman up against any nose tackle in the league as one of the best to do it. He just has a natural feel to him. I have a lot of respect for him as a player and a person. He will be missed around the building.”
But Hicks also expressed faith in Nichols.
“Bilal Nichols is gonna step in and play the best football he can,” Hicks said. “He showed promise through the first couple of years. We look forward to him taking the next step forward and getting another position down.”
With the Bears’ rebuilt offense in developmental mode — a process hindered by COVID-19 restrictions — the defense likely will have to again carry more than its share of the load, especially early in the season. The first day of padded practices isn’t much of an indicator. For what it’s worth, Nichols noted an increased focus so far — usually a good sign.
“We’re actually a lot farther along than I thought we would be,” said Nichols, who will turn 24 on Sept. 14. “Guys are really locked in, attention to detail, the little things guys have been homed in on ever since we came here. It’s good to see that — guys taking everything seriously, and everyone’s just super locked in. There haven’t been as many mental mistakes as you think there would [be] since we haven’t seen each other in such a long time. That’s just a credit to guys being mentally sharp and being in that playbook.”
The Bears have other candidates to fill Goldman’s nose tackle role; defensive line coach Jay Rodgers mentioned Abdullah Anderson, John Jenkins and Brent Urban as additional options. But given his quick acclimation to the NFL as a rookie, Nichols seems like the best place to start.