Over the past few years, the Las Vegas Raiders have signed a player who’s far exceeded expectations. While the fanbase should feel excited about wide receiver Davante Adams and edge-rusher Chandler Jones, general manager Dave Ziegler picked up a young ascending player in Bilal Nichols.
Last year, the Raiders traded a sixth-round pick for linebacker Denzel Perryman along with a seventh-rounder to the Carolina Panthers, and he put together his first Pro Bowl campaign at 29 years old. In 2020, wideout Nelson Agholor added an explosive element to Vegas’ aerial attack with 48 catches for a career-high 896 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Perhaps you remember Benson Mayowa, who finished second on the team in sacks (a career-high seven) for the 2019 campaign.
This year, Nichols will have a chance to add his name to the list of unheralded signings who didn’t have much fanfare going into the season but elevated their play to another level compared to recent years.
Las Vegas Raiders find another free-agent steal in Bilal Nichols
Coming off a campaign with a career-high 51 tackles, five for loss, three sacks, and 12 quarterback pressures, Nichols should have a little more buzz, but he plays a non-premium rotational position at defensive tackle, which limits the spotlight on him even with solid performances in the trenches.
Well, Nichols could see a boost in production while lining up between Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby. Offensive linemen will focus their attention on slowing down the Raiders’ new dynamic duo on the edge, which can create pass-rushing opportunities for interior defenders.
Vegas restructured the defensive line for new coordinator Patrick Graham, who replaces Gus Bradley. The Raiders have a much bigger group of interior defenders with mostly 300-pounders. The team’s official website lists Nichols at 6-foot-4, 290 pounds though. Don’t expect him to bulk up.
Among the Raiders’ defensive linemen, Nichols will probably play the most snaps because he’s capable of rushing the passer with stretches of consistency while providing some versatility. The Chicago Bears moved him across the line to maximize his athleticism and power.
Analyzing Nichols and his versatility
In his first two seasons, Nichols played defensive end in an odd-man front. For the 2020 season, he took a significant number of snaps at nose tackle. Nichols can line up over the center and move all the way out to a pre-snap position over the tackle. Expect Graham to use him in a variety of ways to exploit matchups and further unlock his pass-rushing ability.
Every year, Nichols has played a higher percentage of defensive snaps with a noticeable climb in his tackle numbers. In Las Vegas, he should be on the field for at least two-thirds of the snaps.
- Bilal Nichols stats (2021): 51 tackles, 3 sacks, 9 QB hits
In a division with quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Justin Herbert, the Raiders cannot just rely on Jones and Crosby to collapse the pocket. When they squeeze the edge, signal-callers will attempt to step up and throw darts down the middle of the field. With his blend of quickness and power, Nichols is equipped to finish those plays with a sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and he has the athleticism to get his hands up to bat down passes.
Here’s an example of how a high-level edge-rusher can create opportunities for Nichols on the interior.
In Week 2 of the last season, you can see Khalil Mack win his matchup with right tackle Riley Reiff, shrinking the pocket and forcing quarterback Joe Burrow to step into Nichols, who records the sack in the second clip (h/t Lorin Cox of LockedOnBears).
Brandon Thorn, who writes the Trench Warfare Newsletter and contributes to Bleacher Report’s scouting department spotted Nichols as a rookie and created a short reel of his snaps from different positions across the defensive line:
In the clip, you can see Nichols line up between the tackle and guard, over the tackle and directly across from the center. Even more impressive, he has the agility to break out to the flat and chase down running backs. With that level of effort, Nichols can play on every down. His motor alone will help him finish plays for stops and losses behind the line of scrimmage.
In the middle rounds of the 2022 draft, the Raiders should target another athletic interior defender in the same mold as Nichols, who’s on a short-term deal. With that said, the fifth-year pro has the physical tools to complement Jones and Crosby on the interior while benefitting from their presence.
At the cost of about $8.6 million ($7.1 million guaranteed) over two years, the Raiders may have a steal with Nichols if he continues to develop in a bigger role. At 25 years old, he’s progressing toward his peak.