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NFL Draft analysis: Caleb Williams ready to lead new chapter for Bears

1 month agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Caleb Williams isn’t your typical quarterback prospect arriving into the NFL, and he certainly isn’t your ordinary 22-year-old.

Williams is a proudly unique individual – both on the field and off the field. He has lived life under an intense microscope ever since high school, the spotlight only becoming brighter as a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at USC and now the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

“I’m always going to have scrutiny,” Williams said. “I do things like paint my nails. I’m always going to have scrutiny over that. I wear funky clothes, things like that.
“When I wake up and go (to) the mirror and look at myself, I’m comfortable with that man that’s looking back.”

That’s why Williams was brought to Chicago as the first overall selection in this draft – the heralded young man billed as the savior of a franchise starved for success. The Bears have sought out young quarterbacks before with hopes they can become great. The list of misses at this position is long and infamous.

The Bears have never had a 4,000-yard passer in their century-old history – the lone franchise in the NFL to never see that milestone reached. The rival Packers have seen 18 seasons of 4,000 yards passing, most recently done by Jordan Love in his first year as a starter.

During his visit at Halas Hall in early April, Williams was curious as to why the Bears have failed with quarterbacks in the past. General manager Ryan Poles pointed to the struggles of his predecessors to form the right continuity and infrastructure for their young quarterbacks.

It’s different now for the Bears, who believe Williams has everything he needs to succeed.

“The history is the history,” Poles said. “I’m kind of done talking about it. You go back so much all the time, and those days are over. So, we’re bringing players in here that want to really just change everything up and do things a different way. Obviously, we love our history here, but it has hasn’t been smooth recently. It’s time to change. I feel like we got to stop going back all the time.”

When the Bears hold their first practice of OTAs in May, Williams will line up with the first-team offense as the starting quarterback. There are no current plans from the Bears to sign a veteran stopgap and make Williams earn the job. That’s a vast difference from 2017, when Mitch Trubisky had to surpass Mike Glennon, or three years ago when Justin Fields had to wait out Andy Dalton.

Coach Matt Eberflus is a firm believer in rookies playing in key roles, and the Bears believe no first-year player is equipped for this quite like Williams. Six quarterbacks were selected in the first dozen picks of this draft. There was a steep gap on the draft board at Halas Hall between Williams and the next quarterback.

Williams started as a sophomore at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., emerging as a coveted five-star prospect. He overtook Spencer Rattler as the starter at Oklahoma as a true freshman, then followed head coach Lincoln Riley to USC in 2022.

As a sophomore leading USC, Williams won the Heisman Trophy while becoming the posterchild of college sports’ NIL movement. He shined in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Riley sought to protect Williams as a freshman at Oklahoma. He soon realized this young man didn’t need it.

“He’s not scared for greatness,” Riley said. “He’s not scared to put it out there. He’s not scared to be himself.”

Poles first saw Williams play back in 2021 as he replaced Rattler during Oklahoma’s Red River Rivalry game with Texas. He led the Sooners to a thrilling comeback victory and a star was born.

As Poles developed the Bears’ roster during his first two years as general manager, he held off to make a firm commitment at quarterback. He inherited the 2021 first-round pick Fields, who flashed promise but failed to emerge as a franchise quarterback. But Poles’ rebuilding plan was building towards Thursday night.

The Bears scouted Williams closely throughout his junior season at USC, drawn to his remarkable talents but also finding affirmation in how he handled the Trojans’ struggles. Williams’ numbers fell off from his Heisman Trophy campaign in 2022, and the Trojans finished the regular season 7-5 after a 6-0 start.

“It’s going to be good for him in the long run,” Riley said. “You put up his career to that point: won a state championship in high school, we won a bunch of games his first year at Oklahoma, we won a bunch of games our first year at USC. He hadn’t really been through something like this, and certainly on this big of a stage and the stage is certainly just going to continue to grow as he transitions to the NFL.

“And I just said, ‘Look, part of your ability to lead a team and become the player that you’re going to become is going to be your ability to handle failure. And sometimes you’ve got to go through it. You’ve got to struggle a little bit at some point and build up some scar tissue to get you ready for what’s coming. How you handle this is going to be maybe even more important than how you handle any of the success of the other things that have come your way up to this point.’”

As Williams managed the burden of expectations last season, he became all that more polarizing. Following a loss to Washington in early November, cameras on a national broadcast caught him with tears in his eyes as his mother, Dayna, consoled him.

Williams was crushed by headlines, blasted on social media and baseless speculation followed him towards the draft. First, there were wonders as to whether he would even declare, then if he would seek to control which team selected him, and even the thought of if he could demand ownership stake.

The reputation of Williams drastically differed from the man Poles and the Bears have known throughout this process – a driven, humble individual striving to be great.

Now that he’s an NFL quarterback and the face of this Bears franchise, Williams knows well that the scrutiny will be even greater. The pressure to perform will rise with each season. The demands to win a championship will define his career.

Williams is uniquely prepared for this.

“There’s no reason to duck,” Williams said. “I’m here, Rome (Odunze) is here, Keenan Allen, a top-five defense that we had last year, special teams, all the new roles, whatever. We’re here. I’m excited. I know everybody’s excited. The Bears fans are excited from what I’ve heard and seen, and there’s no reason to duck. Attack it headfirst and go get it.

“My reason to go out there is to win games. My reason why is to win games and championships. So, I want to be a big portion of it. I want to go out there, I want to have fun, I want to enjoy it and I want to do it with my teammates. What better place to do it than (with) the Chicago Bears?

“When you prepare mentally and physically and spiritually for moments like this, when you actually are in the moment, you don’t feel fazed. You don’t feel nervous. You don’t feel the butterflies or anything like that. You’re ready for it. You’re prepared for it.”

Fortunes in Rome

Inside the Bears’ draft room on the second floor of Halas Hall, the decisions are driven just as much by data as they are scouting.

Poles and his brass strongly believe in the incorporation of analytics to inform each move made. That is especially the case during the draft. Poles’ analytics team has a prominent place in the proceedings.

As the first picks played out on Thursday night, Poles and the Bears had their sights set on Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze. They had to have him – but feared it may not work out.

Poles had the Bears’ analytics brass set probabilities for each of the prior picks, waiting on the potential teams to poach him away. But the Giants went with wide receiver Malik Nabers with the sixth pick, the Titans landed tackle JC Latham with the seventh slot and the Falcons made the stunning selection of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. with the eighth pick.

Poles and the Bears considered a trade up but maintained their patience and trust in the analytics. It all played out in their favor as Odunze fell to the ninth pick.

“Our simulations, he was about a 50-50 shot on whether he was going to be there,” Poles said. “But as it started to unfold, (assistant general manager Ian Cunningham) had to hold me back from not trying to trade up and doing something crazy to get him.”

Odunze hauled in 92 receptions for 1,640 yards and 13 touchdowns last season as a key figure in Washington’s run to the national championship game. He’s a 6-foot-3 target capable of playing both inside and outside in the Bears’ scheme.

Odunze will line up alongside returning top target DJ Moore and six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen, whom the Bears acquired by trade in March. Chicago boasts the NFL’s lone receiving tandem that features two players to record 1,200 yards last season.

Now, Odunze enters the fold as another dynamic target for Williams.

“I think we can do special things,” Odunze said.

While the Bears’ decision for the first overall pick became a formality, there was great intrigue with the No. 9 selection. Chicago had intriguing options to fulfill roster needs – the option to select the first defensive player off the board or even beef up protection for Williams with a proven tackle prospect.

But the Bears were holding out hope all along that Odunze would be there with the ninth pick, fighting off the urge to trade up and fortune fell their way.

“I don’t know where to start with that guy,” Poles said. “First of all, the human being, what a great guy. Work ethic, just blue-collar in the way he goes about things. But as a receiver, he can line up anywhere – inside, outside. You love his ability to finish in contested situations. He plays strong, plays big, run-after-catch is very good. He’s a punt returner as well. I mean, the kid put time in, and he got better and better every single year.

“He’s a winner. He can impact the game at any point. If you’re a quarterback and you’re in doubt and you just want to give a guy an opportunity to go finish, he’s your guy. He’s done that consistently.”

‘Everything I’ve wanted’

On a chance encounter, Kiran Amegadjie produced a bold promise.

Amegadjie was at Kemper Lakes Golf Club when he met Eberflus, who was not aware he was a rising tackle prospect at Yale. A lifelong Bears fan himself, Amegadjie told Eberflus they would meet again.

“I told him one day I would be sitting in his office and the next year they would be looking at to draft me,” Amegadjie said.

That dream came to fruition on Friday night as the Bears utilized their third-round pick at No. 75 overall to select Amegadjie.

A two-time All-Ivy League selection, Amegadjie arrives to the Bears as a potential swing tackle this season who will get the chance to challenge two-year starter Braxton Jones on the left side.

“Yeah, you love the tools that he has,” Poles said. “His pass pro is really good. Love his length, hand usage. And a big man that we believe is going to continue to get bigger and more explosive so it should really increase the competition on our offensive line and make everyone better.”

Amegadjie is a Hinsdale native who grew up rooting for the Bears, becoming the latest local product to arrive with this team. He is also the second Hinsdale Central product on the roster along with center Doug Kramer, a seventh-round pick in 2022.

For Amegadjie, being selected by the Bears was difficult to process.

“This is everything I’ve wanted since I was a little kid,” he said. “I can’t even put it into words. This is amazing.

“I don’t even know if this is real or I’m dreaming.”

Punt to win

With their lone selection in the fourth round, it seemed the Bears could finally select their pass rusher, perhaps make a move for the interior defensive line, add to the secondary or bolster their offense.

Instead, the Bears selected the first specialist of this draft – Iowa punter Tory Taylor, the reigning Ray Guy Award winner as the nation’s top punter in college football last season.

Taylor isn’t your average punter. He very well could be the best player at his position in this entire draft class. Last season at Iowa, Taylor averaged 48.2 yards per punt. He is a native of Melbourne, Australia, with a booming leg that was developed with Aussie rules football.

But shortly after Taylor was selected, he received a text message from Williams.

“Hey, you’re not going to punt too much,” Williams texted.

Book it

Poles was only prepared to trade back into this draft if the right prospect fell to the Bears. That’s what happened in the fifth round.

The Bears moved back into this draft and selected Kansas pass rusher Austin Booker with the No. 144 overall pick, which Chicago initially sent to Buffalo in March to acquire veteran offensive lineman Ryan Bates.

Booker was an All-Big 12 pass rusher at Kansas who recorded 8 sacks last season. He’s a raw – but talented – prospect who has the right traits for the Bears.

“I’ve got speed, I’ve got length, I’ve got strength and being able to use all those at once is a gift that I have,” Booker said. “I’m going to use it at the next level.”

Poles sets the tone

Bears co-director of player personnel Trey Koziol has worked alongside Poles since their time together in Kansas City. Koziol followed Poles to Chicago two years ago and stepped into a key role alongside him.

In that time together, Poles has led the Bears through a difficult rebuilding process with hopes of reaching this point – with the team on the cusp of contention.

“He’s the same guy every day,” Koziol said of Poles. “He’s got a calm presence. He’s composed under pressure with this stuff. He sets the tone for the whole group and for us.”

The Bears have turned over nearly their entire roster under the watch of Poles. Just seven players remain from the previous tenure.

The Bears are no longer in the phase of rebuilding. They are ready to win moving forward.

“Now it’s time to start a new chapter for this organization,” Poles said.

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