Entertainment TV Nick Viall Says He Doesn't 'Really Get the Choice' of Clayton Echard as the Next Bachelor "Just looking at Michelle's top four, each of [them] has better storylines, more charisma," Nick Viall tells PEOPLE By Dana Rose Falcone Published on December 17, 2021 04:11 PM Share Tweet Pin Email Nick Viall doesn't quite understand ABC's pick of Clayton Echard for the next Bachelor. "I've been kind of critical of the selection," former Bachelor Viall, 41, tells PEOPLE. "It's nothing against Clayton, he seemed like a nice enough fellow, but just looking at Michelle's top four, each of the top four has better storylines, more charisma. They have out-shined Clayton in every possible way. So I don't really get the choice." ABC confirmed last month that 28-year-old Echard, who appeared on Michelle Young's season of The Bachelorette, will step into the lead role for season 26 after months of speculation. "I think from what we saw with Clayton on Michelle's season, which is not much, it's that my fear for this season is that we're going to get a lot of platitudes and a lot of very high level 'nice.' It'll all sound nice, but none of it will sound real," Viall says. "I hope Clayton proves us wrong and I'm very much rooting to watch this season and say to myself, which I have in the past, 'You know what, I didn't agree with this selection, but they got it right.' I'm rooting for that to happen, but as it stands right now, I don't get it."f Clayton Echard's Official Bachelor Cast Is Announced — Meet the 31 Women Vying for His Heart Christopher Polk/NBC/Getty The Viall Files podcast host does, however, support 28-year-old Young's finalists. "I loved her final four," he says. "It's the first time that I can remember liking the final four for Michelle as much as I do, to the point where it was the first time I was nervous for a rose ceremony being like, 'I don't know who's going home.' " Jesse Palmer will step in as host for Echard's season, and Viall suspects the former NFL player, 43, will take over the role permanently. "I don't think you bring in someone like Jesse Palmer for one season," Viall says. "I think they brought in him to be the long-term host. They haven't really said that, so maybe they're leaving the option open and that's just a total guess on my part, but I would think that that would be their intention." abc; getty Before Echard's season starts on Jan. 3, Viall will spend the holidays with his girlfriend of almost two years, Natalie Joy. "I'm really enjoying the way it's progressing," the reality star says of his relationship. "I'm not trying to set any kind of arbitrary deadlines or timelines for us, but I'm really, really happy with the way things have progressed." RELATED VIDEO: Peter Weber on Sleeping with Hannah Brown While His Bachelor Season Aired: 'Our Little Secret's Out' Unlike previous relationships, Viall says his current relationship with the surgical technologist, 23, works because they balance their own interests with shared passions. "We do a good job of having our own things and then having things we share together," he says. "Through us dating, it exposes her a little bit to my world, which includes a little bit more of a public profile. She does a fantastic job of embracing that and doing that with me, but still prioritizing the things that are important to her and not losing herself in our relationship, which I think I've done before." Viall also says that "more than anyone I've ever dated, she does a great job of making me feel safe enough to talk with her about my faults and insecurities, without worrying about her weaponizing it against me in the future when we're frustrated at each other or if that ever happens." He adds, "And so not only does she not weaponize it, but she helps me work through those when they come up. I haven't always been that lucky." Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free weekly newsletter to get the biggest news of the week delivered to your inbox every Friday. Amy Sussman/Getty Without the goal of an engagement at the end of a show, Viall now takes relationships at his own pace. "It's allowed me to feel good about taking my time with my feelings," the Wisconsin native says of what he learned from The Bachelor. "You can be excited, and you can enjoy where you're at, and you can still say to yourself and the person you're dating, and it's okay to say, 'We have a lot to learn about each other.'" And with Joy, "there's a lot of times where I think to myself, 'I learned something about you today,' " he says. "Whether that was just a little anecdotal story or a disagreement that we had where it's like, 'Oh, okay. Now I see how you approach the situation,' there's a lot of things to continue to learn. I'm just trying to enjoy that." .