Bears DL Bilal Nichols said this summer that his ascension in the span of 12 months from rookie fifth-round pick out of FCS Delaware to key contributor on the NFL's best 'D' in 2018 to a Week 1 starter to begin his second season didn't surprise him.
Among his Year 2 goals, Nichols told us in August, was making the Pro Bowl, which now would require a herculean effort considering he returned to practice for the first time Monday following a four-game absence with the broken hand he sustained in Week 1.
But when Nichols' teammate, Rashaad Coward, was thrown into the NFL fire for the first time in the Week 4 win vs. the Minnesota Vikings because of injuries to starting RG Kyle Long and top reserve Ted Larsen, he admitted his performance definitely surprised him.
"Going into the game, I was like F it. It is what it is. It’s either you do it or you don’t," Coward said.
"I was surprised, you could say. Just playing at a high level. Being consistent and just keep building off of that.
Keep in mind, Coward was playing along the defensive line as recently as 2016 at Old Dominion and had played zero regular-season snaps — at any position — in his first two-plus years on an NFL roster. He's also spent the majority of his practice time at tackle, not guard.
"I hadn’t played guard all week," Coward said of his pleasantly surprising pinch-hitting performance. "I was thrown in there, like, just do what you’ve got to do. Coaches were like, hey, this is what you’re supposed to do. At the end of the day, just keep it going."
The coaches apparently liked what they saw, as Coward, not Larsen, he told reporters, took the first-team reps at right guard Monday, the same day the Bears placed Long on season-ending injured reserve.
Coward broke that minor bit of news only a little while after Matt Nagy said he's still deciding how to replace Long.
It's also worth noting Larsen was practicing for the first time in several weeks and the Bears could very well still be undecided on who fills Long's void. Nagy briefly ran down his options Monday, citing the 32-year-old Larsen's starting experience — 87 starts in 129 appearances over 10 seasons — and the physicality on display in the 24-year-old Coward's debut.
"He had an edge to him that was pretty neat to see. Again, short notice, we talk about guys sweeping the sheds — he was a backup to the backup that game," Nagy said. "Ted ended up starting, he came in and he had a nice little physical edge that I liked in the run game and the pass game. And he’s learning. But he works hard and gives us everything that he has."
The superior technician at this juncture is almost certainly Larsen, but it'd be tough to bring a greater physical and athletic edge than that of the 6-foot-5, 326-pound Coward to the mix. And after Nagy lamented in London the loss of too many one-on-one battles and regularly praised the Raiders' toughness, it shouldn't be a surprise if the Bears opt for the younger, lesser experienced option in Coward to try and deliver a jolt to the team's most disappointing unit.
Nagy was careful to make one point clear regardless of which direction the Bears go
"It's really easy to just go ahead and say, is it because of one person?" Nagy said of the offense's immense struggles running the football and moving the chains. "I can clear it up right now and tell you it's not because of one person. I don't know where that goes with whoever that next person is, but we know there's a lot more to our run game than one person, for instance Kyle Long, there's a lot more to it than him."
Similarly, although a healthy Hicks is the best player on a D-line now with a massive void to fill for at least the next few weeks, Nichols — who's learning to play for the first time with his hand casted — can only do so much.
"[Hicks] pretty much molded me into the young player I am. It just hurt to see him go through that. Best thing I can do is just continue to grow and do whatever I can to make things easier on everybody else."
Suffice to say, Nichols and Coward share a similarly tough mindset.
"I just want to play with a dog mentality. It’s the NFL. Guys come out here and try to kill you every week. So you can’t go out there playing soft. You’re going to get pushed around. And I don’t like that," Coward said.