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Raiders Outlook 2023: Bilal Nichols must lead the charge at defensive tackle

Interior pass rusher can affect the entire defensive line with his effectiveness

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NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos
Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Bilal Nichols must set the tone for the rest of his position group. Signed as an interior pass rush option, Nichols can affect the defensive line as a whole with his effectiveness.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The best pressure is the one that arrives right at the face of the quarterback — right up the middle. That isn’t something the Las Vegas Raiders have done remotely well. Not even close.

While the Silver & Black boasts a bona fide quarterback hunter in defensive end Maxx Crosby, a quality pass rusher on the interior at defensive tackle is basically non existent. That of course can change, but someone has to step up.

And that someone has to be Bilal Nichols.

Why him in particular? There’s two primary drivers for that.

First: According to The Athletic, Nichols rarely left the starting lineup during the offseason sessions open to the media.

Second: Carrying a healthy cap number of $6.687-plus million — good for 10th highest on the team — the defensive tackle was brought in to be a difference maker at the position as a free agent pickup from the Chicago Bears back before the 2022 campaign.

While the cupboard at defensive tackle isn’t bare in terms of numbers, it isn’t a group with star power. It’s a mix of veteran experience and young potential, but the NFL is a production business. And Nichols must become the tone setter based on his early offseason snaps and his robust salary.

“Well, my goal always pretty much stays the same. It’s just to get better. I just try to get better and better. Like, I don’t ever try to put anything extra on myself,” Nichols noted during his media session in early June. “If you come in with the intent every day to get better in everything you do, you try to do it to the best of your ability and better than you did the day before, then naturally you’re going to get better. So, I just try to keep that mindset.”

While the putting anything extra on myself comment could be read as disheartening, Nichols is on a mission to improve every day and his consistent nature of lining up with the first-team unit in the offseason is indicative of that. But he’ll need to improve in Year 2 as the highest paid interior defender on the team. A 17-game starter in 2022, Nichols played in 71 percent of the Raiders entire defensive snaps (804) and produced 44 total tackles (16 solo) with 1.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. According to Pro Football Reference, Nichols accounted for 14 pressures, three hurries, and nine quarterback hits in his first season in Las Vegas.

Houston Texans v Las Vegas Raiders
Raiders defensive tackle Bilal Nichols (91) will need to hit home more often and get to opposing quarterbacks before they fire off a pass.
Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

His run defense was up to snuff, however, he was brought in to bring life to the interior pass rush and Nichols must make marked improvement in that area this coming season. At 26 years old and five-year veteran, Nichols is afforded the opportunity to a lead by example-type for the defensive tackle room. Especially to younger players like 2023 NFL Draft picks Byron Young (third round, Alabama) and Nesta Jade Silvera (seventh round, Arizona State).

“It’s definitely nice,” Nichols said when asked about heading into the second year in the Raiders defensive system. “Like I said, being here with my team allows you to really get that chemistry, get that bond and just get that camaraderie with each other. That definitely makes it easier, and plus when you’re playing with so many selfless players, bro, like it makes things so much easier for you.”

Amplifying his ability to generate more pressure and sacks from the interior will not only increase Nichols’ own effectiveness, but affect the entire defensive line as a whole. Without much production inside, offensive lines can focus and put more double teams on an edge rusher like Crosby.

A more concentrated effort at defensive tackle will force offensive lines to adjust and provide more one-on-one scenarios at the edge.

And opposing quarterbacks don’t have many options to elude a pass rush that screams from the middle of the defensive line, as opposed to stepping up in the pocket to avoid the edge hunters. The rush up the gut falls heavily on Nichols and fellow defensive tackles Jerry Tillery, Matthew Butler, and Young. But getting pressure from bigger tackles like Adam Butler, Neil Farrell Jr., John Jenkins, and Silvera can go a long way, too.

But it’ll start with Nichols — especially if he continues to have a strong and consistent presence with the first-team defensive group in training camp in late July. If not to help the Raiders defense become more productive, but to also to generate more interest on the market as he’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this coming year.