In the fifth installment of our series detailing the 2018 Bears draft picks and how they fit the scheme, we move on to fifth-round pick: Bilal Nichols. If you missed the fourth part on Joel Iyiegbuniwe, you can find that here.
Defensive lineman Bilal Nichols feels like another one of those “Pace specials” that the Bears GM gets so maligned for. You know the type, small school, limited production, or the production came against sub-par competition. These picks often elicit a “who” or a “huh,” followed by a bit of head-scratching. Much like Iyiegbuniwe, Nichols is the type of player that left you wondering just what Ryan Pace was thinking.
Sure, defensive line seemed like a place that could use a little boost with the departure of Mitch Unrein, but there were potentially more pressing needs on the roster (hint: edge rusher). I have gotten to a place where I trust who Pace picks in the draft and am willing to give them a chance, that will certainly be the case with Nichols. As with all draft picks, I started digging into the player, and I must say, this one has sleeper written all over it.
It is no secret that the Bears play a base 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Without getting too technical, the base alignment — which is used only about 30-35 percent of the time under Fangio — has three down lineman and four stand-up linebackers, as the name suggests. This is what that looks like more times than not:
You can see the 3-4 alignment very clearly here. Typically when one thinks of a 3-4, what comes to mind is Pittsburgh or Baltimore. They are true 2-gap fronts. This means that the defensive lineman are heads-up on an offensive lineman. Their job is to mirror the player attempting to block them while reading the backfield. They have responsibilities for covering both the gap to the left and the right of the offensive lineman, thus the term “2-gapping.” This is a perfect example of all of the defensive lineman playing this technique:
Fangio doesn’t strictly adhere to this school of thought. While in base, there are a lot of 2-gap concepts, it appears that as if he likes to show different looks as well. In the first GIF, you can see Jonathan Bullard shoot through the gap in what is essentially a 4-3, 1-gap technique (think Tommie Harris). Fangio showed a lot of this look with Bullard late in the season when Bullard was on the weak side of the formation with Akiem Hicks on the strong side.
There were many other wrinkles that I saw as well. Sometimes Fangio went with only one down lineman, sometimes he had four. Other times I saw him overload one side of the line with Eddie Goldman, Bullard, and the outside linebacker. My point being that Fangio appears to value versatility more than he needs a specific type of player. There is a misconception that only giants with mastodon length arms can play defensive end here. That simply isn’t true.
Look back the days in San Francisco and you will see that he almost exclusively used undersized (for a 3-4) lineman. It’s not a surprise to me that Fangio has found a happy medium between sheer size/length and quickness/agility. Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris did a pretty good job over the last five games or so of 2017. Adding Nichols is doubling-down on that same type of player.
When I first watched Nichols, I found his most recent tape. 2017 represented a shift in the way that Delaware played on defense. They went from a 1-gapping 4-3 in 2016 to a 2-gapping 3-4 in 2017. This scheme appeared to be very rigid however. There were almost always 3-down lineman on the field and the Delaware linebackers rarely rushed this passer. This makes blocking this front rather simple, just double-team two players.
The issue for Nichols is that he went from essentially a 3-technique (again, think Tommie Harris) to a nose tackle like Goldman. At 6’4″, 306 lbs., this didn’t seem like the best use of his skills. Make no mistake about it, Nichols is not weak, but learning to play in a 2-gap scheme is difficult, especially when you are being double-teamed on virtually every down. It is pretty easy to see looking at the film that he just wasn’t that comfortable in this role and his coaching staff did not put him in the best position to succeed.
The good news is, he didn’t get pushed around against a very good Virginia Tech offensive line. So he can 2-gap at the next level when called upon to do so. I personally would use him more how the Bears utilized Bullard and Robertson-Harris last year. As you can see from his highlights, most of which are from 2016, that he has some serious quickness and power.
Without any serious competition for a roster spot, especially with Rashaad Coward switching to offensive line, I am very confident in saying that Nichols will be on the roster. It will be interesting to see how the defensive line rotation shakes out but ultimately Nichols will be a part of that rotation from the beginning.
In reviewing tape of the Bears defense last year, it was pretty obvious to me that both Bullard and Robertson-Harris are poised for a breakout. Of course, that all depends on how they are used. I thought that Bullard was much better when playing inside at either a 1-technique (outside shoulder of center), 2-technique (head-up on the guard), or 3-technique (outside shoulder of guard). Robertson-Harris on the other hand was much more comfortable playing outside like a traditional 4-3 defensive end would. He excelled in a 5-technique (outside shoulder of tackle), 7-technique (inside shoulder of tight end), or 9-technique (outside shoulder of tight end).
My guess by watching his college tape is that Nichols is more similar to Bullard than he is to Robertson-Harris. If I am right, and the Bears defensive line starts to maul their opponents, then this should create more opportunities for Nichols. Instead of hoping to beat out other players on the depth chart, he should be hoping that they are playing well. The key to having a good defensive line is depth and we have seen Hicks and Goldman fade late in the season.
Look for Nichols to be used sparingly early in the season but as his play improves, he should be battling for a role on this defense. With the rest of the fire power on the front-seven, anything that Nichols adds is gravy, and I would like to have an extra serving of that.
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