Chicago Bears cornerback Bryce Callahan is congratulated by teammate Bilal Nichols after intercepting a Matthew Stafford pass during the Bears win over the Lions Sunday at Soldier Field. — Mark Busch - mbusch@shawmedia.com
Chicago Bears cornerback Bryce Callahan is congratulated by teammate Bilal Nichols after intercepting a Matthew Stafford pass during the Bears win over the Lions Sunday at Soldier Field. — Mark Busch - mbusch@shawmedia.com

Bilal Nichols is the least-known quantity among the 12 starters on the NFL’s top-rated defense. The 22-year-old out of FCS Delaware is also an absolute lock barring injury entering his second season for a roster spot on the Bears. Just don’t tell him that.

“First and foremost, my biggest thing is just making the team,” Nichols told PFW this week of his personal goals coming off a rookie season that surprised just about everyone outside of Halas Hall. “I had a great year last year, but that don’t guarantee me anything. I want to make this team, I want to be a starter, and my goals are high.”

So far, so good for Nichols, who has been lining up at the starting right end spot since the offseason program commenced. That’s not necessarily new considering Nichols logged five of his six rookie starts over the final six weeks. But it’s been clear to anyone paying close attention at Bears camp that Nichols appears very much new and improved.

“So, I dropped my body fat a lot — probably about 5-6 percent,” said Nichols, who estimated he’s down from 19-plus percent to 16, technically closer to a four-percent drop. “Changed my body. Incorporated a very healthy diet. I’ve been in the weight room with Akiem [Hicks], Nick Williams, so that’s helping me get stronger. I’m pretty much the same weight but a lot stronger, a lot more explosive.”

It’s hard to say what’s more exciting: a second-year player's strides with his power and explosiveness after both traits jumped off the tape a year ago, when he tackled what many thought would be a bigger leaning curve from the Blue Hens to the Bears; or the fact that Nichols has formed what he calls a “special” bond with Hicks, another unlikely success story, who went from Regina, Canada, to three teams in three seasons to Pro Bowl defensive lynchpin and the NFL’s 39th-best player overall, according to his peers.

But it wasn’t difficult for Hicks to pinpoint why he thinks Nichols had so much success as a rookie fifth-rounder who was among the team’s more efficient havoc-wreakers up front, lining up in varying spots and tallying seven QB hits, three sacks and two forced fumbles in only 31 percent of the defensive snaps.

“I think what was special about Bilal Nichols was the way that he came in. I had a lot of respect for a young man that would come in and be able to put away pride, ego, whether he was the man or not at the school that he came from,” Hicks explained. “And he said, ‘hey, I want to learn. I want to be better. I want to grow. I want to do this. And be willing to receive information.’ You can't put a value on that. He played well because he came into camp in the right mindset. He came into the season with the right mindset.”

Those sentiments are clearly mutual, and Nichols said the influence Hicks has had on his growth is profound.

“He’s always trying to help me out,” Nichols said. “He loves seeing me take that next step in my game, and I’m very appreciative of him for not withholding knowledge and wanting to see me grow and get better as a player.”

Nichols balked a bit when we suggested he'd be a bit surprised with how far he'd come in such a short time, saying this is definitely where he envisioned he'd be because it was one of his goals and he "sets them with an expectation he'll reach them."

And his D-line coach, Jay Rodgers — who deserves vast credit for overseeing Hicks' career transformation and Nichols' promising NFL start — said in the spring that he also wasn't surprised because of his professional approach from the jump, to which Hicks alluded earlier.

"Surprised is probably not the word," Rodgers told PFW. "Because he’s got a really good work ethic, he developed fast. And what he was able to do was put himself in position to make plays — and when the plays presented themselves he made them. That’s why he kept getting more opportunities to play."

Of course, the more opportunities Nichols and fellow youngster Roy Robertson-Harris maximize in Chicago's ferocious front with the already-established Hicks and Eddie Goldman, the more likely it is that what’s already the best defense in football can be that much better.

So, how much better does Nichols think he can be this year after what he calls a “great” offseason for himself?

“I’ve made so much progression,” he said. “I’m really excited about this year. Just working on more the physical part of my game — changing my body, getting stronger, quicker, faster, more explosive.

“ … I want to be a Pro Bowl player, Pro Bowl-caliber player, plain and simple. Those are my goals.”