The Chicago Bears have 25 total unrestricted free agents going into next month. While all of them will be addressed in one way or another, the general agreement is the debates begin and end with three names. Wide receiver Allen Robinson was terrific in 2019 and 2020, playing like a #1 receiver. Then he fell off last season. James Daniels was on a Pro Bowl pace at left guard in 2020 before tearing his pectoral. Upon returning last year at right guard, he struggled. Last but not least is Bilal Nichols, who had a career-high five sacks two years ago but regressed somewhat last year.
New GM Ryan Poles has to figure out whether he wants to keep those three players before moving on to lesser names. Based on the information available, it sounds like Robinson is unlikely. Thanks to the previous regime, he has a lot of hard feelings and may wish to rebuild his value by playing with a veteran QB elsewhere. According to experts, Daniels figures to command $10 million or more per year on the open market. Given his inconsistency and questionable intensity at times, he may get that elsewhere.
That leaves Nichols.
His status is a bit more uncertain. The Bears already figure to lose Akiem Hicks to free agency as well. They already have enough holes to plug on the offensive side. So perhaps they may consider hanging onto Nichols despite his somewhat frustrating 2021 season. Adam Jahns of The Athletic addressed this in his recent column. He made it seem like Poles could let the 25-year old gauge his market ahead of free agency but will ultimately stay in Chicago.
“The Bears need a three-technique defensive tackle, and Nichols seemingly has the skill set to fill it. Nichols was thought to be in line for an extension heading into last season, the last of his rookie contract. But it didn’t happen. Nichols didn’t replicate his breakout 2020 campaign, but his snap count still increased. Nichols remains one to watch.
He fits the free-agent mold that Poles likes: young, promising and with something to prove. It wouldn’t be surprising if he tests the market, even if that means conversations in Indianapolis, before returning to the Bears on an affordable deal.”
It seems like a favorable outcome for both sides. Chicago is switching to a 4-3 defense under Matt Eberflus. The scheme requires a defensive tackle that excels at shooting gaps, creating interior pressure on the quarterback. This is something Nichols flashed several times during his past four seasons with the Bears. What it comes down to is the price tag he’ll be happy with.
It doesn’t get talked about enough and I’ll be writing about it soon but Bilal Nichols had a good rookie year for being a fifth round pick. Played with some great players but he had moments where he was disruptive as hell. #DaBears pic.twitter.com/l0CRfLhDMZ
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) May 9, 2019
8. Conversely, Bilal Nichols is emerging before our very eyes.
Whatever it was holding him back last year is a thing of the past.
The 24-year old has 3 sacks, 5 QB hits, and an INT in his past three games.
The future of the #Bears defensive line might be in good hands. pic.twitter.com/l14CeIfUuv
— Erik Lambert (@ErikLambert1) December 21, 2020
Bilal Nichols contract projection seems fine
Pro Football Focus did in-depth numbers-crunching for the top 200 free agents this offseason. Nichols was ranked #171, no doubt a byproduct of his underwhelming 2021. They believe he will command somewhere in the vicinity of $8.25 million per year. That puts him on the same tier as other defensive tackles like Roy Robertson-Harris, Linval Joseph, and Michael Brocks. It isn’t the $17-18 million he was probably hoping for, but it is still a pretty solid payday for a former 5th round pick out of Delaware.
While he isn’t the three-technique Eberflus probably has in mind, it is at least a decent enough starting point. With Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn at defensive end, somebody like Bilal Nichols should be able to generate pressure given the high number of single blocks he’ll see. He isn’t Akiem Hicks, but he is somebody that can be more than serviceable for the time being.
A bridge option to somebody better down the road.
Denico Autry is a perfect example of this. He never had more than five sacks during his time with the Raiders. Then in 2018, the Colts signed him to become their three-technique guy. He finished that year with nine sacks in 12 games. Eberflus knew exactly how to use him. The same can happen for Nichols.
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