How the Bears can develop No. 1 draft pick Caleb Williams

ByCourtney Cronin ESPN logo
Friday, April 26, 2024

Editor's note: This originally ran on April 10 and has been updated after the Bears selected Caleb Williams with the No. 1 overall draft pick Thursday night.

Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles pondered the question, knowing his ability to find an answer will help define his legacy: Why haven't the Bears been able to draft and develop a franchise quarterback in the past 85 years?

"It's a good question," Poles said at the annual league meeting in March.

Perhaps the person most interested in the answer is former USC quarterback Caleb Williams. The Bears drafted Williams with the No. 1 overall pick Thursday.

The last quarterback the Bears drafted in the first round and developed into an All-Pro was Sid Luckman, who was taken with the second overall pick in 1939, when there were just 10 teams. Since the NFL and AFL merged in 1966, creating the first common draft in '67, the Bears have selected six QBs in the first round. Those quarterbacks have combined for zero selections to the All-Pro teams (first team or second), and two Pro Bowls during their time in Chicago.

Two of those QBs helped achieve team success, but with a ton of help. Jim McMahon, the No. 5 pick in 1982, won Super Bowl XX with perhaps the greatest defense ever assembled and one of the greatest running backs, Walter Payton, still performing at his peak. And Rex Grossman, No. 22 overall in 2003, reached Super Bowl XLI with the third-best scoring defense that season.

Part of the problem, Poles said, was rooted in poor evaluation of prospects. Justin Fields, who was taken No. 11 in 2021, was the latest first-round quarterback who didn't pan out for the Bears. He was traded in March to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a conditional sixth-round pick, and he's expected to back up Russell Wilson. The Steelers made room for Fields by cutting another former Bears first-rounder in Mitch Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017.

Will Williams follow in the footsteps of Grossman, Trubisky and Fields, or will he end the embarrassing references to Luckman as the Bears' last franchise QB?

We asked 11 NFL coaches and two general managers, including those who have drafted and developed prospects into franchise quarterbacks, to name the single most important tool in that development. The Bears might want to pay attention.

Brian Callahan, Tennessee Titanscoach

Résumé: Callahan was Joe Burrow's offensive coordinator in 2020 when the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick. Burrow led Cincinnati to Super Bowl LVI in his second season and the AFC title game the following year. After four seasons with Burrow, Callahan was hired by the Titans in 2024 and will be tasked with the development of second-year quarterback Will Levis.

Key: "I think the starting point is always going to be, how do you help their decision-making? How do you help develop the timing in the passing game? And then how do you help them develop their accuracy? And that has to do with their feet, what the footwork looks like.

"Those things to me are really, pretty important. It's hard to pinpoint one thing that would just say, 'Hey, this is how you're going to get better.' But if you do a really good job with the decision-making part, the timing and the accuracy, I think you have a chance to have a pretty good quarterback."

Nick Caserio, Houston Texans general manager

Résumé: Caserio spent 20 years with New England in various personnel roles and played a role in the rise of Tom Brady from a sixth-round draft pick in 2001 to six-time Super Bowl champion. He was hired as general manager of the Texans in 2020 and helped create a supporting cast for C.J. Stroud that enabled him to win Offensive Rookie of the Year last season.

Key: "Anytime you have continuity from one year to the next, it's important, because at least it gives you a foundation in place. The team is going to be different, the opponents are going to be different, so there's going to be a lot of things that are different, but to be able to keep a number of things at least similar or the same, hopefully will be beneficial."

Bears' reality: Since their last playoff win in 2010, the Bears have had five head coaches and nine offensive coordinators, so continuity has not been a strong point. They're hoping coach Matt Eberflus, entering his third year in Chicago, and formerSeattle Seahawksoffensive coordinator Shane Waldron will develop the young quarterback and stop the revolving door.

Brian Gutekunst, Green Bay Packers general manager

Résumé: Gutekunst was a scout with the Packers when Aaron Rodgers was drafted in 2005, and he became Green Bay's general manager in 2018. The Packers drafted Jordan Love in 2020, and they're hoping he'll follow in the footsteps of Rodgers and Brett Favre, whom the Packers developed from young players into franchise QBs. Love sat for two seasons behind Rodgers before leading Green Bay to the playoffs in his first year as a starter. Rodgers sat for three seasons behind Favre.

Key: "Great coaches. The players [Rodgers and Love], obviously, themselves. But those guys got to learn from some pretty good players, as well. I think that's an important part of it is to be able to sit behind a guy that does it at a very high level, prepares at a very high level, seeing what that takes and all the things that are on the plate of a quarterback before they actually have to go out there and perform.

"It's about how to be a pro quarterback, how to handle things before you actually have to go out there and perform."

Bears' reality: The other QBs on the Bears' roster are Tyson Bagent, who threw three TDs and six interceptions in five games subbing for Fields last season, and Brett Rypien, who has four starts in five years of NFL experience. This is not a situation in which Williams will be able to sit and learn behind a successful veteran.

Matt LaFleur, Packers coach

Résumé: Robert Griffin III earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 with LaFleur as his quarterbacks coach in Washington. LaFleur was then Matt Ryan's quarterbacks coach during Atlanta's trip to Super Bowl LI and was Jared Goff's offensive coordinator in his second season. After one season as the OC for the Tennessee Titans in 2018, LaFleur replaced Mike McCarthy as head coach in Green Bay, where he has helped guide Love's development.

Key: "I do believe that some guys, if they're thrown in there too early, they get scars, and then they start to lose their confidence. It's hard when a guy loses his confidence to kind of recover from that.

"I think there's a lot of layers to how you develop your quarterbacks, but ultimately, you want them to be able to have a great knowledge base and maintain their confidence through the ups and the downs."

Mike McDaniel, Miami Dolphinscoach

Résumé: McDaniel was hired in Miami ahead ofTua Tagovailoa's third season in 2022. Tagovailoa led the NFL in passer rating in 2022 (105.5) and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2023 while leading the NFL in passing (4,624 yards).

Key: "Reps. [Tagovailoa] had more reps [in 2023] than he's ever had in his career because he played the full season."

Sean McDermott, Buffalo Billscoach

Résumé: McDermott, a defensive head coach, was hired by the Bills in 2017. Buffalo drafted quarterback Josh Allen in 2018, and one year later, the Bills started a streak of five consecutive playoff appearances.

Key: "I get that question a lot, just because of how we've handled Josh. And I would just say, I think the biggest thing you've got to do is have a plan that's well thought out ahead of time before we even bring that player into the building.

"We've been successful doing that, when we drafted Josh and even before we drafted Josh. Bringing that player along, not just on the field but off the field as well, and all the resources that you put into that one player in particular. And I was able to benefit by being around Andy [Reid in Philadelphia] and watching him do that with Donovan [McNabb] and then in Carolina, drafting Cam [Newton] and watching that process. And then now with Josh."

Sean Payton, Denver Broncoscoach

Résumé: Payton was Drew Brees' head coach during Brees' entire 15-year career with the New Orleans Saints.

Key: "I think the difficulty is in evaluating ... With quarterbacks, I think one thing that's hard to measure is their ability to multitask and process and make decisions.

"You can visit with someone, they can be intelligent, but man, how quickly can they deliver the information and how quickly can they get through the progression? Are they accurate?"

Doug Pederson, Jacksonville Jaguarscoach

Résumé: Pederson was the Philadelphia Eagles' coach during their 2017 Super Bowl run with rookie QB Carson Wentz, who suffered a season-ending injury and was replaced by Nick Foles. The Jaguars hired Pederson in 2022, and he helped Trevor Lawrence earn Pro Bowl honors and his first playoff win that season.

Key: "I think one of the biggest things you can do is help them with the run game. If you get your run game going, that's going to open up some things in the pass game: play-action pass, your movement game, all of that.

"And then just having the right pieces around him. Having guys that he's comfortable throwing the ball to, guys that he kind of knows. Like for me, it was Zach Ertz to Carson Wentz when he was that rookie quarterback. And I think with Trevor two years ago, Marvin Jones was the guy he had the most confidence in. Then he got better with Calvin [Ridley] and Evan [Engram] and guys like that. But I do believe it starts with the running game."

Bears' reality: One of the Bears' biggest free agency moves was signing running backD'Andre Swiftto a three-year, $24.5 million deal. Swift was one of just six running backs with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 35 receptions last season with thePhiladelphia Eagles. "We just felt that we wanted a home run hitter there," Eberflus said. "I know that in situational football it's very difficult to be able to have the two guys outside covered, two tight ends covered, and then you got another situation where you have the weapon back inside. So that was critical."

Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefscoach

Résumé: As the head coach of the Eagles, Reid coached Donovan McNabb from his rookie season in 1999 through five consecutive playoff appearances from 2000 to '04, including Super Bowl XXXIX. In 2013, Reid joined the Chiefs, who drafted Patrick Mahomes in 2017. Reid sat Mahomes the majority of his rookie season before Mahomes led Kansas City to three Super Bowl wins in five seasons.

Key: "Most importantly, patience. It's not going to be all perfect. And then as a head coach, you better be able to protect the guy and stand up there and explain that to the media, because it can be brutal for a young guy stepping in there."

DeMeco Ryans, Texans coach

Résumé: The NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006, Ryans rose through the ranks in San Francisco from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. He became the third head coach in three years to be hired by the Texans when he was brought on in 2023. Houston used the No. 2 pick last year on quarterback C.J. Stroud, who earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Key: "When we talk about [Stroud's] growth, I think it starts with the coaches that you surround him with. So we surrounded him with some young coaches, young talented coaches in Bobby Slowik, Jerrod Johnson, also veteran coaches in Bill Lazor and Shane Day, who's no longer with us, but just surrounding him with the right guys in the coaching position, but also in his room.

"Having Case Keenum there, a veteran quarterback who's done it at a high level for a long time. Making sure that we have that balance around C.J. So if there's any questions, any things that he may ask, or things that he can lean on guys who have been there, done that, have seen that before, there was not a guy around him that he couldn't ask, he couldn't rely on who could give him the answers and could share with him their experiences of how they seen other quarterbacks succeed in this league."

Bears' reality: The Bears hired Kerry Joseph to be their new QB coach. Joseph worked under Waldron in Seattle for the past four seasons. They also hired formerCarolina PanthersOC Thomas Brown to be their passing game coordinator. "We're fortunate to have [Brown]," Eberflus said. "He had several offensive coordinator interviews, head-coaching interviews. ...It's important that we got the information from him of what his process was with [former No. 1 pickBryce Young]."

Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Brownscoach

Résumé: Stefanski was Kirk Cousins' offensive coordinator when the Vikings reached the playoffs in 2019. He earned his first head-coaching job in 2020 with Cleveland and the Browns made the playoffs with Baker Mayfield, who was in his third season. In 2023, Stefanski saw four different Browns quarterbacks win games as the team made the playoffs as a wild-card team.

Key: "I think with young quarterbacks, like any young player, if you're going to develop them, you better have a good relationship with them. So, I think building a relationship of trust is important because it's a hard position.

"You're going to ask a lot of them. You're going to ask a lot of them in the meeting room, at the line of scrimmage before the snap, after the snap. So, before you can ask all that, I think you have to have a great relationship with that person, as that's where it starts."

Shane Steichen, Indianapolis Coltscoach

Résumé: Steichen was Jalen Hurts' offensive coordinator in 2022 when Hurts helped lead the Eagles to Super Bowl LVII. That earned Steichen his first head-coaching job last season with the Indianapolis Colts, and he had rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson off to a fast start before Richardson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Key: "Don't clutter their minds with too much information. That's No. 1. We can give them so much information that it's just overwhelming."

Bears' reality: This is something the Bears will have to improve on after Fields complained last year that all of the information and coaches' voices in his head made him too "robotic." And that's when Fields was in his third season. Maybe the hiring of Waldron, who has been praised for his ability to get the most out of a handful of quarterbacks with wide-ranging skill sets, fromJared Goff to Russell Wilson to Geno Smith, will help solve that problem.

Zac Taylor,Bengals coach

Résumé: Taylor coached Ryan Tannehill during the quarterback's first four NFL seasons in Miami, and he was later Jared Goff's quarterbacks coach during the Rams' run to Super Bowl LII in 2018. That earned him the Bengals job in 2019, and he helped develop Joe Burrow into a Super Bowl quarterback.

Key: "I think [the biggest thing was Burrow's] level of preparedness, and how much you put into it early on and ask the right questions, and didn't walk in like the No. 1 pick and 'I deserve all this stuff.'

"He earned everything that he got. I think he earned the trust of the players early in install meetings, and then the plays that he made in training camp. It was a COVID training camp, but the opportunities he got on the field I think really opened people's eyes early on, and we knew we could put a lot on his plate."

Bears' reality: Williams should get every opportunity to prove himself and win the respect of his teammates, and there's no doubt the Bears improved the supporting cast. Aside from Swift, the Bears traded for Los Angeles Chargers Pro Bowl receiver Keenan Allen to pair with DJ Moore, making the Bears the only team with two receivers who topped 1,200 yards last year.

ESPN reporters Ben Baby, Sarah Barshop, Rob Demovsky and Marc Raimondi contributed to this report.

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