Bilal Nichols finds himself in a familiar situation with the Las Vegas Raiders.
He's a driving force of the interior defensive line, supplemented by an elite edge rusher in Maxx Crosby. He's a hard-nosed, lunch-pail guy that comes into work every day ready to get his hands dirty. He does a lot of small things well in the trenches, often not noticeable to the casual football viewer.
This situation is not new to Nichols by any means. It's a role he initially carved out for himself with the Chicago Bears.
The defensive tackle was selected in the fifth round by the Bears in the 2018 NFL Draft. He was a bit of lesser heard name coming from the University of Delaware, where he earned First Team All-Colonial Athletic Association honors his senior season. The Bears saw a lot of raw potential in Nichols, placing him in a defensive front surrounded by Pro Bowlers Roquan Smith, Akiem Hicks and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack.
While Nichols was expected to grow and develop in the star-studded defense at the time, he wasted no time working himself into the rotation. He started six games his rookie season, producing 20 solo tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles as the Bears went 12-4 and won the NFC North title.
As Nichols was abruptly thrown into the fire, he had to be a fast learner. What exactly did he take in?
"How to deal with adversity," Nichols said, reflecting on his early days with the Bears. "How to always find a way to bounce back from something, no matter what it is that we're going through. That's one thing I got taught early in the league. Just to be persistent and to realize the rain doesn't last forever, there's always sun at the end of the tunnel."
After four seasons with Chicago, he signed with the Raiders in 2022. Since his arrival to Las Vegas, he's started in all 23 games to this point, with 27 solo tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks over that span. In the eyes of his head coach and defensive coordinator, his play has been as advertised.
"[H]e's been a steady guy since we got him last year," Josh McDaniels said. "Just works really hard at all the areas that are required at that position. He's got to be able to play the run and be physical inside. He works at pass rush diligently every single week that we're out there. I think he's improved in both areas. I think he understands the scheme that we're playing now the best since I've been here. ... But true pro, really a good influence on everybody else. Comes in prepared every day, puts in a great deal of work at practice technique wise, fundamentally, and then he gives great effort."
"Bilal was a productive player before he got here, and he's had success in the league for the bulk of his career," Patrick Graham added. "The main thing is just playing hard like he's always done and playing with his hands. ... But it all comes from hard work. Whatever he's getting out there on the field is because he earned it, and I couldn't be happier with his work ethic."
Nichols attributes a lot of the success he's found on the Raiders to the chemistry he has with the defensive line. He considers them good friends, spending a lot of time with his teammates off the field as well. They've began a tradition of dining out or cooking dinner at one of their houses every Thursday during the season.
The common ground they've found has translated onto the field, with Nichols believing that "when you know people on and off the field, it makes it easier to go to battle with your brothers."
The chemistry was notable against the New England Patriots. Late in the fourth quarter, Nichols broke through a double team to meet Crosby in the backfield – sacking Mac Jones for the game-winning safety.
On par with Nichols' calm demeanor and team-first approach, he credited the rest of his defensive line for helping him make the play.
"It was amazing," he said. "Adam Butler did an amazing job of getting the center turned, and it allowed me to go in there and be able to split [the double team]. A lot of that credit goes to him, and the rest of my teammates for doing their part for me to be able to get there."
Other notable connections
- Raiders Assistant General Manager Champ Kelly served as Chicago's assistant director of player personnel from 2017-21 after spending two seasons as the Bears' director of pro scouting.
- Raiders wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett played for the Bears from 1998-99, rushing for 639 yards and two touchdowns in that span.
- Raiders tight end Jesper Horsted spent two seasons with the Bears (2019, 2021), tallying three touchdowns in 13 games.
- Raiders wide receiver DeAndre Carter played four games for the Bears in 2020.
- Raiders quarterback Brian Hoyer played for the Bears in 2016, notching 1,445 passing yards and six touchdowns in six games (five starts).
- Raiders defensive tackle John Jenkins spent two seasons with the Bears (2017, 2020), totaling 29 tackles (12 solo) and one forced fumble.
- Raiders quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree spent a season with the Bears (2015) as an offensive assistant.
- Raiders assistant special teams coach Derius Swinton II served as assistant special teams coach with the Chicago Bears for two seasons (2015, 2017).
- Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is from Arlington Heights, Illinois. He attended Rolling Meadows High School and played collegiately at Eastern Illinois University. He won the Walter Payton Award for most outstanding offensive player in NCAA FCS football in 2013.
- Raiders quarterback Aidan O'Connellis from Long Grove, Illinois, and attended Stevenson High School.
- Raiders linebacker Robert Spillane is from Oak Park, Illinois, and went to Fenwick High School.
- Raiders cornerback Nate Hobbs attended Illinois from 2017-20. He compiled 110 solo tackles and 11 pass deflections.
- Bears defensive tackle Andrew Billings spent one season with the Raiders (2022), notching 18 solo tackles and a sack.
- Bears safety Duron Harmon played for the Raiders in 2022, posting 63 solo tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown.
- Bears defensive end Yannick Ngakoue played for the Raiders in 2021, leading the team in sacks (10) with 28 tackles.
- Bears quarterback Nathan Peterman played for the Raiders from 2019- 21 and saw action in two games.
- Bears offensive quality control coach Zach Cable gained his first NFL experience as an offensive and defensive assistant with the Raiders from 2018-21, working with the offensive line, tight ends and linebackers.
- Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan was an assistant offensive line coach for the Raiders in 2009.
- Bears defensive line coach Travis Smith spent 10 years coaching with the Raiders prior to his arrival in Chicago, serving in multiple defensive roles, including defensive assistant (2012-14), defensive quality control (2015- 16, 2018-19) and outside linebackers (2017).
- Assistant quarterbacks and wide receivers coach Omar Young gained scouting experience during the 2007-08 seasons working as an intern in the player personnel department for the Raiders.
Head inside Intermountain Health Performance Center as the Silver and Black prepare for their Week 7 matchup against the Chicago Bears.