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Caleb Williams declares for the NFL draft — and the Chicago Bears, picking No. 1, ‘can’t be scared of the unknown,’ analyst says

It’s official. USC quarterback Caleb Williams on Monday declared himself eligible for the NFL draft, opening the door for the Chicago Bears to solve one of this offseason’s high-stakes riddles.

Before April 25, general manager Ryan Poles and his staff — blessed with the No. 1 pick — will have to decide whether to unite with Williams as their new quarterback. The intricate evaluation process, which already has included stops to see Williams play in person as well as comprehensive video study, will go to a new dimension over the next three months.

Asked last week what’s the most important part of quarterback evaluation during the pre-draft process, Poles stressed the need to learn more about the wiring and personalities of the prospects.

“It’s not just the film,” he said. “I need the person. There’s a whole process here we have to figure out.”

Poles also emphasized the Bears’ intention to spend ample time with the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft class, to get up and close and personal and ask pointed questions to learn more about what makes them tick.

“I have a lot of confidence in our ability to see talent on the field,” Poles said. “It’s the human being we’ve got to figure out.

“Especially being a quarterback in this city? You’ve got to have it right. You have to have mental toughness. You’ve got to be able to block things out. So, really, I have to find out about the human beings.”

ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid is among many who consider Williams the top quarterback prospect in this year’s class and a good fit for the Bears at No. 1. In his most recent mock draft, Reid projected the Bears to select Williams with the top pick.

Reid recently spoke with the Tribune to offer his comprehensive review of Williams. Here are highlights from that conversation.

On what in Williams’ skill set makes him special:

I’ll go all the way back to the beginning. Even going back to his days at Oklahoma, the first game we actually saw Caleb play was in the Red River Rivalry (against Texas in 2021). If you remember, Spencer Rattler wasn’t playing well in that game. And when Caleb came in, right away he engineered a magical comeback. So that’s where the intrigue really started.

Overall, you see the physical traits with him. He can make every single throw that you want. He’s a very good processor of information. He’s a good “see, read and react” type of quarterback. Then you add on top of that the improvisational skills he brings to the table, and it’s special. Really, he’s everything you want at the position as far as what we’re seeing in today’s game.

Yes, there are some rough ends he needs to clean up as far as ball security and all the fumbles he has had. He definitely has to clean that part up. Also, what I’ve been telling everybody is he has to understand when he needs to keep that Superman cape in the closet. Because he plays a lot of hero ball.

You’ll see all these highlights where he’s running around everywhere. But his defense (at USC) has given up 40 or 50 points in some games, so he has kind of had to keep it in overdrive. But he doesn’t always understand when to put that Superman cape in the closet. So the biggest thing I think he needs to improve on is just not getting bored with making the easy throws.

On why Williams had fumbling issues at USC:

A lot of is trying to do too much. Then sometimes he kind of holds the ball like a loaf of bread where he just has one hand on it. And some of it is just bad luck where defenders have found a way to knock the ball out. But he needs to understand to keep two hands on the ball.

On Williams’ pocket feel:

That’s another special trait he has. It’s having that innate feel of being able to play inside the pocket. He can play outside the pocket, obviously, too. He can make throws from inside and outside of it. He just has a feel and awareness of everything going on around him. And he’s always in control.

Then, we’ve all seen he can improvise with the best of them. That’s what makes guys like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen so dangerous. He’s that way — like some of the best players that we’re seeing on the NFL level. That’s not to promise he’s eventually going to be on that tier with his productivity and success. But as far as the improvisational skills? I think he’s just as good as those guys walking through the door right now.

On how to properly support Williams in the NFL:

One key to Caleb’s success will be being paired with a play caller who can kind of rein him in a little. Because he can get into overdrive with those improvisational skills just because it’s like a crutch for him. Like, “I’m so good at this improvisational stuff, I know when I get into bad situations, I can just lean on that.”

But there are other times where he should step up in the pocket and make those easy throws. But he’s giving up those easy throws (occasionally) just because he has that crutch of being so good with his improvisation. It’s a habit that he has leaned on a little too much.

On the value of Williams’ feel inside the pocket:

At the end of the day, what it comes down to in the NFL is can you make throws from the pocket. That’s where we’ve seen guys like Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen really grow. Those guys were so good playing outside of the pocket, but you have to be comfortable within the confines inside the pocket too. I think Caleb is comfortable within the pocket.

Now, he’s so good with those improvisational skills to where he hasn’t really had to fully show how good he can be inside the pocket,. USC wasn’t very good up front this year either, so that was another reason he wasn’t able to really show all he was capable of inside of the pocket. Still, you saw some shades of it where, “Oh, man, he can really do this from inside the pocket.”

But it’s a combination of his offensive line being so bad (at USC) and him also having that habit of, “I’m so good outside the pocket that I’m just going to keep doing this and keep going to the well.” So I think there’s going to be a bit of an initial adjustment for him.

But the great thing from the Bears standpoint is that they have a dependable starter at left tackle in Braxton Jones. And then (right tackle) Darnell Wright has played pretty well for the most part as a top-10 pick. So as far as those tackle positions, I think he’s secure there. Now, the Bears have some work to do as far as the interior. But from a pocket standpoint, he’s already going to be more protected than he ever was at USC or even Oklahoma.

On his perception of Williams as a person:

From the outside looking in, I think he has a very dominant personality that will welcome that big-market media (presence). And it takes a special kind of person to do that — especially in Chicago, a big media market. You have to have tough skin in a market like that.

We’ve seen him play at USC, which is in a big market in Los Angeles. Oklahoma is a blue-blood program. So he’s been in these situations before — maybe not to an extent of the New York Jets or the Chicago Bears or anything like that. But I think he has tough enough skin to where he’s going to be able to take some of the criticism.

I know everybody’s going to point to him going into the crowd and crying with his mom (after losing to Washington). But I actually liked that. To me, it showed he cared. He cared about what was going on and was so fed up with everything that was going on with USC that he just had to let it out.

I know a lot of people will spin it and say he is soft, but I didn’t take it that way. I took it as he really cared about what was going on.

On the value of Williams’ roller-coaster 2023 season for NFL teams seeking to understand how he handles struggle, pressure and criticism:

We saw him face a lot of that adversity, whether it was the Notre Dame game or even the Oregon game where he had some struggles and didn’t have adequate surroundings. Two years ago he had Jordan Addison (at wide receiver). Last year he didn’t have that type of receiver. I know they had some guys they were excited about coming into the season, but it never really lived up to the hype and potential and everything was really on Caleb.

And he never wavered, in my opinion. He played as hard as he could. There was never a sense of giving up or giving in to adversity. I thought he battled and battled every single game. To me, that shows a lot about his football character.

On ranking this year’s QB class:

It’s still Caleb at the top for me. (North Carolina’s) Drake (Maye) has closed the gap a little bit based on how he played this year. He didn’t have the season he was wanting, but I thought he closed the gap. I still think of Caleb as a distinct first right now and then Maye.

After that, you get into that second tier of Jayden Daniels at LSU, Michael Penix Jr. at Washington, J.J. McCarthy at Michigan and so on and so forth. But if I have No. 1, I’m going Caleb all the way. Without question.

On what Poles and the Bears should do with their high-profile quarterback decision this spring:

There are so many layers to this. It’s so difficult. I’d bet Ryan Poles is staying up to 2 or 3 in the morning every single night thinking about this.

And I don’t think it’s the question of, “Are you moving on from Justin Fields and bringing on a new quarterback?” I think the bigger question is, “Are you comfortable enough with the flashes that Justin Fields has shown to consider paying him a Daniel Jones type of contract of four years, $160 million?” Or do you compare that to having Caleb Williams or Drake Maye and then being able to fill out some of the other parts on your roster (with the added money)?

That’s the big question. If I was in Ryan’s shoes, I would trade Justin. Just because there are some things he still struggles with as far as playing the position from an anticipation standpoint and then standing in the pocket and being able to deliver. We know Justin is an elite runner, but there’s much more to playing the position at a high level.

I just think you can’t be scared of the unknown when you’re making a decision like this. That’s the big question that (Poles) has to sit down and ask himself. But it’s, “I can’t be scared of the unknown.” I think Caleb Williams’ upside plus the cap space I’m going to get (with him on a rookie contract) is going to be better long term than paying Justin Fields or committing to Justin Fields for the next five or six years. So I’m just more comfortable with Caleb Williams on a rookie deal.