Bilal Nichols was the biggest surprise of 2018 for the Chicago Bears. Nobody outside of hardcore college football nerds knew who he was going into the NFL draft that year. That’s why when the Bears picked him in the 5th round, it was met with a series of quizzical expressions and shrugs. It’s not that it was a bad pick. People just weren’t sure how to react. The feeling at the time was he would be a depth option at best for the team.

The Bears already had two studs up front in Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. They were joined by a solid two-man rotation of Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard. It was difficult to see any way that Nichols would be able to insert himself into that equation. Maybe in a year or two when one of them was no longer in the picture.

Except that didn’t sit well with Nichols. He may have played football at Delaware, but that meant nothing when it came to his competitiveness. One thing impossible to measure when drafting players is their heart. If they want it enough, they’ll go and take it. Nichols was willing to put in the work. He just needed some help.

It would come from a rather unexpected place.

Bilal Nichols got more than just helpful tips from Akiem Hicks

Veteran-rookie relationships are somewhat tricky in the NFL. Not every older player is willing to provide too much help to younger ones. Paranoia about job security tends to create such an atmosphere. However, there are those out there who aren’t so insecure about such things and are focused on making the football team better.

Hicks is one of those types. Nichols explained via an article by Dan Pompei how the Pro Bowl defensive end helped mold the rookie into a key part of that 2018 defensive front.

Before their first preseason game last year, Hicks told Nichols that after the game he should sit with him on the plane. In what would become a routine, Nichols joined Hicks and they watched tape of the game on the trip home.

“He taught me how to watch film, what he looks for and what I should be looking for,” Nichols said. “It’s been huge for me. Ever since I got here, day one, he’s never been selfish with any knowledge. He always wanted me to be the best me and always pushed me. Even today, here at practice, he’s critiquing me like he’s a coach.”

Nichols hangs at Hicks’ house — Hicks, in fact, hosts regular dinners with defensive teammates to watch football on Thursday nights– and they go out to dinner together. He says he wouldn’t be where he is today without him.

Nichols finished the season with three sacks, five tackles for a loss, and two forced fumbles.

It sounds like the two have grown tight. Never a bad thing when it comes to players within the same unit. The defensive line was a strength for the Bears last season. If Nichols takes another step forward in 2019, there is no telling how good it can be. Well, maybe Hicks knows. He certainly has no intentions of letting the youngster forget what he’s working for.