Bears select Caleb Williams with No. 1 pick in NFL draft, their latest shot at finding a franchise QB

DETROIT — It’s official: Caleb Williams is a Chicago Bear as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

Football’s worst-kept secret became public a few minutes after 7 p.m. CDT Thursday when the Bears, from their draft room at team headquarters in Lake Forest, sent an electronic message to Hart Plaza 326 miles away. Once that alert was received and the decision transcribed onto a card that was handed to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Williams’ long-awaited moment arrived.

The goal he set at age 10 of becoming the top pick in the draft was realized. And Bears fans’ recurring dream of finding a franchise quarterback to unlock a long run of championship contention was reawakened.

In a draft loaded with first-round talent that created plenty of intrigue for Thursday’s 32-pick roll call, Williams distinguished himself as the top dog in a highly regarded quarterback class, creating one of the least suspenseful and most anticipated moments in recent draft memory.

In terms of skill set, the consensus among NFL talent evaluators is that Williams offers the total package. He is lauded most for his off-script playmaking gifts. He’s able to turn trash into treasure with his agility outside the pocket, feel for the game and rare arm talent that allows him to alter the velocity and arc on his throws to find the big play.

“Pure magic,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

Added Joel Klatt, a college football analyst for Fox Sports and a draft contributor to NFL Network: “Every quarterback has to have a superpower, at least to reach this point of being considered for the No. 1 pick. Caleb’s superpower, his best trait, is to not just be effective but to really hurt a defense when he’s creating. It’s not when he’s running but when he’s creating. His ability to throw with accuracy, power, leverage, touch, drive the ball — all on the run and off platform — is special.”

It would be a mistake, though, to classify Williams as a one-trick pony. Klatt studies quarterbacks across five key categories when projecting their NFL potential: arm talent, schematic intelligence, pocket passing production, on-the-move playmaking creativity and running ability.

“I have been evaluating quarterbacks for the draft for a little more than 10 years, and Caleb’s the only quarterback I have evaluated who is elite in all five of those categories,” Klatt said. “And that’s why for two years we’ve been talking about him as the No. 1 quarterback prospect.”

The Bears fell in love with Williams as a player through their scouting process over the last two seasons. In 2022 the USC quarterback threw for 4,537 yards, accounted for 52 total touchdowns, won the Heisman Trophy and revived the Trojans program during his first season on campus after transferring from Oklahoma.

His 2023 season wasn’t nearly as sparkling, as USC sputtered to a 7-5 regular season and Williams didn’t even crack the top 10 in Heisman voting. But he still threw for 3,633 yards and 30 touchdowns with five interceptions while propelling a Trojans offense that finished third in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring (41.8 points per game), fifth in passing (333 yards per game) and 10th in total offense (467.6 yards per game).

When the predraft vetting process reached the next level this winter and spring, Bears general manager Ryan Poles, coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron set out to learn much more about Williams as a person.

What makes him tick? What knocks him off course? How passionate about football is he? How does he lead?

As Poles and Eberflus heard more about Williams from his teammates at both USC and Oklahoma, they were struck by how respected and admired he was.

“When you talk to his teammates, they don’t like him, they love him,” Poles said. “It’s his leadership, how he brings people together. He’s intentional with his leadership.”

Leading up to draft night, the Bears talked internally about Williams’ natural calm and self-assurance and noted how, during a monthslong predraft process in which rumor, speculation and judgment about his personality swirled through social media and sports debate shows, Williams seemed totally unruffled and comfortable navigating that space.

“He’s been public enemy No. 1 with all this criticism that has been coming his way,” Jeremiah said. “And he has just stayed focused and gone about his business.”

Williams appears to have the experience and skill to deal with what now awaits him in Chicago. The pressure. The expectations. The loud criticism. The microanalysis of his every move on and off the field.

Williams believes he has found the secret to surfing through that world with optimal serenity.

“I feel comfy in my own skin,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. I feel comfy in my own skin, in who I am, how hard I work, what I do in my daily life, how I act and how I treat people with respect.”

There are no guarantees Williams will soon end the most maddening of Bears droughts. Thirteen seasons since their last playoff victory. Thirty-six years since they last enjoyed three consecutive winning seasons. Forever — literally — since they had a 4,000-yard passer or a 30-touchdown-pass season.

Williams now has a chance — and the responsibility really — to change all of that and put the Bears on a new track. That journey began Thursday night.