Bears in Danger of Losing Multiple Promising Young Players

Bilal Nichols

Getty Bilal Nichols of the Chicago Bears runs with the ball against the Detroit Lions after recovering a fumble.

Bilal Nichols and James Daniels are two of the top free agents set to hit the open market for the Chicago Bears — and some are saying the team may lose them both.

Daniels played center at Iowa before getting drafted by the Bears in the second round (39th overall) in 2018. Still just 24 years old, Daniels has been one of Chicago’s best offensive linemen since his arrival, spending the bulk of his time playing left guard.

Nichols is another young player who has displayed potential over his four seasons with the Bears. A fifth-round pick for Chicago in 2018 (145th overall), Nichols has started 49 games for the Bears on the defensive line over that span, playing in 60. The 25-year-old has played everywhere from nose tackle to defensive end, and he could be a potential replacement for fellow free agent Akiem Hicks — if the Bears choose to re-sign him.

According to multiple insiders close to the team, however, both Nichols and Daniels could be playing for different teams next season.

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Nichols Remains Biggest Question Mark

Much will depend on what new general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus think of both Daniels and Nichols. Poles vowed to “be selective in free agency,” according to Bears insider Adam Jahns of The Athletic, who noted the following about Nichols in his February 22 column:

The Bears need a three-technique defensive tackle, and Nichols seemingly has the skill set to fill it. Nichols was thought to be in line for an extension heading into last season, the last of his rookie contract. But it didn’t happen. Nichols didn’t replicate his breakout 2020 campaign, but his snap count still increased. Nichols remains one to watch. He fits the free-agent mold that Poles likes: young, promising and with something to prove. It wouldn’t be surprising if he tests the market, even if that means conversations in Indianapolis, before returning to the Bears on an affordable deal.

Two things about this observation from Jahns stand out: his comments about Poles and his mentioning of the Indianapolis Colts. It sounds like Chicago could let the young defender test the waters — and there could be potential interest coming from Indy.

Nichols has racked up 18 tackles-for-loss, 11.0 sacks, four fumble recoveries, five passes defensed and 31 quarterback hits in his four years with the Bears. While he’s not as disruptive as Hicks, he has had the benefit of playing alongside and learning from the veteran since entering the league. We’ll see if that matters to Poles and company.

“The Bears’ evaluations begin with Bilal Nichols,” Jahns added on February 24. “If Eberflus views him as a capable three-technique defensive tackle, then the Bears shouldn’t let him leave. A fifth-round pick in 2018, Nichols is a homegrown player who has overachieved his draft status. He appeared to be in line for an extension last year, but he didn’t get it. It was a curious move. Poles and Eberflus should find out why and then figure out if Nichols fits into their plans.”

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Daniels Should Garner Significant Interest From Other Teams

Per PFF, Daniels ranked 8th among all guards in the NFL last year in snaps (1,121). His age, versatility and skill set should make him one of the team’s most sought after free agents this offseason.

“I think people believe Daniels’ best football is ahead of him,” Bears insider Brad Biggs of The Chicago Tribune wrote in his February 23 column. “That being said, I would be very surprised if the Bears chose to use the franchise tag on him considering it comes with a price tag of $16.7 million. It’s possible the Bears will see if they can work out a new contract, but I would expect him to at least explore what’s out there on the open market. He could easily get a deal that tops $10 million annually.”

Biggs isn’t alone in thinking Daniels is hitting the open market. PFF’s Doug Kyed agrees:

It’s also possible the Bears re-sign them both — but with $25.3 million in cap space, that’s highly unlikely. Stay tuned.

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