5 observations as Caleb Williams and the new-look Chicago Bears prepare for rookie camp and OTAs

After an eventful and exciting offseason, the Chicago Bears will reconvene on the field for rookie camp next week at Halas Hall, followed by the first session of organized team activities beginning May 20.

General manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus have been busy over the past four months, first overhauling the coaching staff and then upgrading the roster. Eberflus has added 11 new assistants to his staff since last season ended, and the Bears improved their depth chart with the five-man draft class they assembled last weekend to go with 12 free-agent signees and two key trade acquisitions.

Suddenly the Bears appear to have a playoff-caliber team around rookie quarterback Caleb Williams, who already seems to be settling in as the franchise’s new headliner. The optimism percolating out of Halas Hall seems justifiable as the Bears eye a big leap in their climb back toward championship contention.

With offseason practices around the corner, here are five observations about where the team is headed.

1. Caleb Williams won’t be caught off guard by the attention, pressure and expectations that await him in the NFL.

And in Chicago specifically.

Williams’ mic-drop moment at his introductory news conference at Halas Hall last week came when he was asked about his comfort in the spotlight and his willingness to take on high-level pressure when it would be easy to duck all the expectation and stress.

“What’s the reason to duck?” Williams said with a smile. “It’s here. There’s no reason to duck. I’m here. … 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.”

It was an impressive, mature answer from a young quarterback whose fearlessness has been lauded as one of his best traits. It’s not just that Williams is willing to lean into the pressure, it’s that it has been his default setting, his preference.

Lincoln Riley, who was Williams’ coach for one season at Oklahoma and two more at USC, believes that mindset will catalyze Williams’ NFL emergence. Riley was continually impressed by Williams’ desire to set grand goals and vocalize them.

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

“You have to have that belief in yourself. You have to have that belief in the people around you. And it’s contagious. When a leader or a quarterback feels that way about his team and about what they’re trying to accomplish, it energizes the entire group.”

Riley sees similarities between Williams’ 2022 arrival at USC and his beginning in Chicago.

“You’ve got an all-time iconic place that’s been a little bit down and you’re trying to bring it back,” Riley said. “Obviously there are a lot of parallels with what he’s getting ready to come up and do in Chicago. So to have that jolt of confidence and excitement in the beginning to help get it off the ground is a key part. He certainly has the inner belief to get that done.”

2. Rookie wide receiver Rome Odunze already is gravitating toward Williams’ strive-big mindset.

Odunze, whom the Bears drafted at No. 9 last week, believes he is wired in similar fashion.

“I want to go out there and do legendary things,” he said. “And that takes legendary goals and not being shy to come out and say (in advance) that you’re going to do those things. So I appreciate that (in Williams).”

Odunze also appreciates his journey during four seasons at Washington.

He joined a Huskies program in 2020 that was undergoing a coaching change. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington played only four games in Odunze’s freshman season, then sputtered to a 4-8 record in 2021 before making another coaching change from Jimmy Lake to Kalen DeBoer.

Odunze had to adjust and stay locked in and ultimately became a major contributor to a two-season run in 2022-23 during which Washington went 25-3 and made it to the College Football Playoff national championship game last season.

Odunze posted an FBS-best 1,640 receiving yards in 2023 on 92 catches, 13 of them for touchdowns. More importantly, he saw what it took for the Huskies to go on that climb.

“I learned a lot,” he said. “From the camaraderie and the brotherhood that you have to have in the locker room to dealing with the adversity that you go through in a season to the thrilling games that you have to clinch at the end to having the skill set to clinch those games. Being able to be clutch in those moments and be reliable for the team is one of the biggest things for me.”

In October, Odunze caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes of a 36-33 win over Oregon. He had eight catches and 102 yards in the rematch with the Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game, then went for 125 yards in the Huskies’ 37-31 triumph over Texas in the national semifinals.

“We had that chip on our shoulders knowing the only thing that mattered was what was in that locker room with the effort we put forward and invested in one another,” Odunze said. “Through a lot of adversity, through perseverance, we believed in one another. And that can take you a long way.”

3. The Bears still need help on their defensive front.

Poles used only one of his five draft picks on a defensive player, and that was pass rusher Austin Booker, regarded as a raw prospect who needs considerable time to develop. The Bears selected Booker after trading back into Round 5 with a 2025 fourth-round pick they sent to the Buffalo Bills. And while the front office and coaching staff are intrigued by Booker’s traits and upside, they understand he’s likely a ways off from becoming an impact starter.

Who did the Chicago Bears select in the 2024 NFL draft? Meet the 5-player class.

In free agency, meanwhile, Poles signed only five defenders: safeties Kevin Byard and Jonathan Owens, linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga, defensive end Jake Martin and defensive tackle Byron Cowart.

The push to add another major pass-rushing threat, either off the edge or at tackle, has yet to hit the mark. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bears continued shopping the discount shelf of free agency this spring and summer to find a veteran who can contribute right away.

Don’t forget, the Bears didn’t sign pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue last year until training camp had already begun. Ngakoue agreed to a one-year, $10.5 million deal in early August, then struggled to his lowest sack total (four) in his eight-season career before breaking his ankle in December and missing the final four games.

A reunion with Ngakoue at a team-friendly price isn’t out of the question. The buzz within league circles is that Ngakoue’s rehabilitation from ankle surgery should have him ready for training camp. So it will be interesting to see how serious Poles might be in trying to run it back with the 29-year-old defensive end.

Other veteran pass rushers still on the market include Shaq Lawson, Bud Dupree and Markus Golden.

At defensive tackle, meanwhile, the Bears seem to be betting on a big Year 2 jump from Gervon Dexter at the three-technique position. If Poles is interested in adding competition and depth, Calais Campbell, Hassan Ridgeway and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are available as free agents.

4. Ryan Poles is ecstatic about not only the talent he has assembled, but also the chemistry growing within the team.

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Poles left draft weekend feeling the Bears are in great shape. The talent has been upgraded on both sides of the ball, but just as significant, the GM believes, is that the Bears have loaded the locker room with a bunch of team-first, Type A competitors who genuinely enjoy being around one another.

“It’s really rare to have the skill level be improved so much but the culture and the people be top notch as well,” Poles said. “To bring in really good people and really talented players, that’s really hard. And you don’t have to worry about having a bad locker room or a bad culture where through adversity things begin going bad and it starts eating at itself.

“These guys love being around each another. They love football. Coming up through scouting, those are kind of the staples. You want to make sure guys are passionate about football and that they’re good teammates. You lean into that. And you have to have faith that when you put a bunch of those people together, they can be special.”

5. The 2024 schedule release is just around the corner.

The Bears should learn the sequence of games next week, with the official release expected on Thursday, May 9. With the addition of Williams plus a much-improved supporting cast, it would not be surprising if the Bears are a major prime-time draw with at least five night games.

Adding to the intrigue is an eye-catching list of opposing starting quarterbacks. If everyone stays healthy — yes, that’s a massive “if” — Williams could have six games against quarterbacks who also were drafted at No. 1 (Bryce Young, Trevor Lawrence, Kyler Murray, Matthew Stafford and two versus Jared Goff) plus four games against QBs also drafted in the top 10 last week (Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye and two versus J.J. McCarthy).

The other opposing quarterbacks on the docket aren’t too shabby either: C.J. Stroud, Brock Purdy, Jordan Love (twice), Geno Smith, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis.