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With bright spotlight awaiting, Caleb Williams building for rookie campaign

1 month agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — In his very first week leading the Bears through organized team activities on the back fields at Halas Hall, Caleb Williams has looked like a rookie. 

Williams stepped onto the practice field Monday and made plays against a veteran-laden defense, then came out again on Thursday and struggled. He has hit targets in stride with throws downfield and also missed opportunities. There have been clean huddles but some mistakes too. Williams extended a play to make a spectacular throw down the sidelines in one practice. On another rep, he ran out of bounds for a loss rather than throwing it away. 

This is all exactly what should be expected of the 22-year-old Williams, who despite his place as the clear-cut top quarterback in this draft class – the No. 1 overall pick to Chicago – is still another NFL newcomer settling in. 

Each huddle Williams breaks, snap he takes and throw he makes is all part of the development process now underway.  

“I saw progress from the first day to the second, the second to the third,” head coach Matt Eberflus said. 

“I see progress, for sure.” 

What matters the most for Williams is establishing a foundation in his first NFL offseason. He got a start learning Shane Waldron’s offensive scheme before he was even drafted. Before his name was finally called to Chicago, Williams was already leading routes with DJ Moore, Keenan Allen and Rome Odunze in Los Angeles. 

Williams has been a sponge for information inside meetings at Halas Hall – learning from both his coaches and veteran teammates. He has returned from the team facility to a local hotel room each night and opened up his iPad to continue studying.  

Now, Williams must apply all he has gained so far against a defense that understands its role in his development plan. 

“Make it as hard on him as possible,” said veteran safety Kevin Byard. “Going out there, showing some swag, talking trash, doing all that stuff. Because at the end of the day, he’s going to have to lead us there. That’s kind of how it’s going to be. I said something to him at the end of practice, like, ‘Keep it going. We’re going to keep making you better.’ And not necessarily saying he had a terrible day, but days like this are going to make you better. That’s our job.  

“He has done a lot of positive things. He has made some really great throws and just coming in with that swag as a rookie quarterback. But he doesn’t seem flustered by anything. So, that’s exciting to see.” 

Said Moore of his new quarterback: “You can see the natural leadership is there. The natural arm talent is there. Everything about him is just a positive thing.” 

Williams has three more weeks of work ahead for this offseason program, then a break before training camp starts in mid-July. He will step into an intense microscope from there. 

For much of his adult life, Williams has lived in the spotlight. He’s a former five-star high school recruit, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner at USC, the posterchild of college sports’ NIL movement and now the top pick in the draft. But what he accomplishes in the dark, away from the bright lights, will ultimately define him.

Williams is a young man carrying the weight of great expectations forward – tasked with becoming a franchise quarterback for a city that has never seen one before. Once those lights turn back on come September, he must be ready to embrace them. 

This is the time for Williams to learn, grow and look like a rookie.  

Byard setting the tone 

In his first season opener not wearing a Titans uniform, Kevin Byard won’t have to look far to find his former team.  

The Bears will host the Titans to kick off the new season Sept. 8 at Soldier Field. 

“The football gods have a way of working things out,” Byard said. 

That first Sunday of the new season will bring Byard full circle as he begins this new chapter with the Bears, who signed him to a two-year deal this offseason. A two-time All-Pro safety with the Titans, Byard is now a key leader for the Bears’ budding defense. 

Byard, 30, is entering his ninth NFL season and ready to serve as the elder statesman of this defense.  

“I mean, we’re expecting to be a top defense,” Byard said. “Anything less than that is a letdown.  

“We’ve got to make sure we’re a top defense. That’s what we expect and we talk about that every single day.” 

The Bears coveted Byard this offseason in a free-agent class that was deep with options at safety. There were a number of accomplished players at that position who were available to fill a key void for this defensive identity. 

The Bears believed Byard could be an important leader for this unit, but also a prolific presence in the secondary. Byard has hauled in at least four interceptions in five of his eight career seasons. 

Perhaps what’s most astounding of Byard’s career is that he has never missed a game or even a practice during the regular season. 

“I mean, his production speaks for itself,” defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. “And so, from afar, you look at that, you see a safety who has that type of ball production. And then you get him here, you see the command, the intelligence, his ability to communicate very quickly, especially as we need to make adjustments before the ball is snapped.  

“I just like him; he’s got a great personality. He’s had a lot of (success) in his career. But he’s a humble person and very receptive, very open.” 

The race is on 

With a background in coaching defense, Matt Eberflus knows well what a defensive coordinator is facing against the Bears’ bolstered offensive core. 

The Bears feature arguably the NFL’s top wide receiver trio with DJ Moore, Keenan Allen and Rome Odunze, an accomplished rusher in D’Andre Swift leading the backfield, plus a tight end tandem with Cole Kmet and Gerald Everett. 

“When you have one player in situational football, and even on first down based on formation, you certainly can tilt your coverage to that player to eliminate that player the best way we can,” Eberflus said. “And when you have other guys that are on the opposite side of that — for example, if you had three receivers on one side and Cole on the other side and you want to tilt the coverage over there, well, you still have Cole one-on-one backside. And that’s for all of our players. That’s what weapons do for you offensively. It really balances out the defense and makes them true and honest rather than tilting the field one way or the other to a star player.” 

During his first season with the Bears, Moore was the clear standout on offense. He posted 96 receptions for 1,364 yards and eight touchdowns.  

While many star wide receivers want the football every play, Moore understood well what a strong group around him would mean. The Bears brought in the six-time Pro Bowl target Allen, a future Hall of Famer, in a March trade with the Chargers. Then came the selection of Odunze with the No. 9 overall pick in the draft. 

It stands to benefit Caleb Williams as a rookie. But for each of these core pieces on offense, iron can sharpen iron. 

“You got endless playmakers in there,” Moore said. “It’s probably going to be a race to 1,000 (receiving yards) now. I don’t know who’s going to get there first, but it’s going to be a race.” 

Dexter in the right frame 

The Bears didn’t necessarily expect to see a significant rookie season out of Gervon Dexter Sr., their second-round pick out of Florida in 2023. 

Dexter faced a steep learning curve with the Bears, who required him to adjust from a two-gap assignment at Florida to now firing off the football in a one-game scheme. Dexter emerged late in the season as he admittedly became more comfortable with his role. But that was only part of the process to grow acclimated. 

Dexter is a large presence standing at 6-foot-6 and played last season at 312 pounds. He arrived back to the Bears this offseason appearing noticeably slimmer and more athletic.  

“He changed his body in the time he was off, so he’s much leaner now and he’s quicker,” Eberflus said. “He really looks good in terms of his get-off. That was one thing he had to work on and then pad level, because he’s such a big guy, tall guy. And he’s worked on those things. But his movement, his athletic ability is even better now because he really worked on his body.” 

The Bears will be counting on Dexter as their primary 3-technnique defensive tackle, the position Eberflus has said is the engine that drives this defensive identity. Chicago has explored plenty of different players to fill that role through these last three offseasons. 

Dexter is now in the right frame for a strong second season. 

Washington attends the accelerator  

Eric Washington has earned the reputation as one of the most respected coaches in the NFL, a man whose passion and purpose is felt each day.  

The Bears have come to admire that of Washington since his arrival as their new defensive coordinator in January. It’s why they elected to send him to Nashville early this week to attend the NFL’s coach accelerator program, developed as “an effective avenue for club owners and executives to be exposed to the skillset and unique backgrounds of highly qualified coaching candidates, and for the program’s participants to network with one another and engage in professional development sessions,” Roger Goodell said. 

For the 54-year-old Washington, attending the accelerator program is a step towards his goal of becoming an NFL head coach. 

“It was unprecedented access with all of the club owners and executives and just getting to chance to sit down,” Washington said. “I did a mock interview, a chance to sit down and interact to them on that level and in that context and just to continue to grow as a professional. And some of things that impact me and my role now and some things that will impact me as I consider and move towards the next chair.” 

Last December, the Bears were represented at the general manager accelerator program by assistant general manager Ian Cunningham and senior national scout Francis St. Paul. 

Doing right by Fields 

DJ Moore wasn’t surprised when the Bears made their trade of Justin Fields to the Steelers in March. The writing was on the wall at Halas Hall. 

For his part, Fields also wasn’t surprised by the move. He anticipated it was coming early in the offseason and prepared himself for the move. But perhaps what wasn’t expected for Fields was how the Bears and general manager Ryan Poles lived up to their word of finding him the right fit. 

In late February, Poles spoke of the possibility to trade Fields by saying he hoped to “do right by Justin” in a deal. That meant coordinating the move with Fields’ representation. Their request was for a move to Pittsburgh – whether that was as the starter or, in this case, the backup behind Russell Wilson. 

The Bears turned down the chance for a better draft pick return, sources said. They instead landed a conditional sixth-round pick from the Steelers that will become a fourth-round slot if Fields plays 51% or more of Pittsburgh’s snaps at quarterback. 

In addressing reporters in Pittsburgh for the first time since the trade, Fields confirmed that Poles and the Bears lived up to their word of finding him the right opportunity. 

“Shoutout to Poles,” Fields told reporters. “We communicated to him through my agent, and I told him where I wanted to be, and this was a place I wanted to be. He honored that, and I appreciate him for that and glad he was able to put me in a spot where I wanted to be at.” 

Nearly a month after parting ways with Fields, the Bears announced their selection of Caleb Williams as the first overall pick in the draft – the quarterback they hope can become a star in Chicago. 

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