Leading up to Bears training camp in late July, Shaw Local is counting down the top 25 most important Bears for the 2021 season.
What makes one player more important than another? That’s subjective, of course. But for our purposes it comes down to this: Are the Bears worse off if this player can’t play? Does this player have untapped potential or past greatness to live up to? Is his story going to be one fans follow closely this season?
Justin Fields might not be the best player on the Bears in 2021 (or maybe he will be?), but he certainly is among the most important.
No. 22: Bilal Nichols
Position: Defensive lineman
NFL Experience: 4th year
Looking back: Bilal Nichols keeps improving with every passing season. The 2018 fifth-round draft pick has certainly out-played his draft slot. He started all 16 games in 2020, recording five sacks, seven tackles for loss, one interception and 39 total tackles. Without Eddie Goldman last year, the Bears relied more heavily upon Nichols and he came through. His five sacks were second on the team behind Khalil Mack’s nine. His seven tackles for loss were tied for third behind Roquan Smith’s 18 and Mack’s 11. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Nichols has earned himself a seat at the table when it comes to discussing a contract extension. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bears and Nichols agree to an extension sometime during training camp.
Looking forward: Adding back a nose tackle like Goldman – which is certainly the hope – is only going to help Nichols thrive. Given that Akiem Hicks has spent parts of the past two seasons battling injuries, having a productive interior lineman like Nichols around is a necessity. The Bears need Nichols to keep playing like he did in 2020. When Mack is in a lull, or Robert Quinn is missing in action, it’s nice to have someone like Nichols who can pick up the slack. Nichols proved he could do that last season. While the Bears did a nice job adding veteran depth on the defensive line via free agency, they want Nichols in the lineup. He has the potential to be a breakout star this season.