The NFL’s pre-draft process got into full swing last week at the Senior Bowl, and the combine is less than three weeks away.
Kliff Kingsbury to the Washington Commanders has led to a lot of speculation that the Bears will trade up for Caleb Williams. Do you believe this or think the Bears will stay put and draft the QB? — Michael F., Chicago
The Commanders hired Kingsbury, the former Arizona Cardinals coach, as their offensive coordinator Sunday after he nearly had a deal in place with the Las Vegas Raiders. It has sparked the kind of let’s-skip-however-many-steps-necessary speculation you’d expect from people who figure this means the Commanders, who hold the No. 2 pick, will trade up with the Bears at No. 1 to draft Williams, a Washington native.
Kingsbury spent this past season as an analyst at USC, where he worked closely with Williams. He drew solid interest as an NFL coordinator, including from the Bears, who interviewed him in Los Angeles for the job that eventually went to Shane Waldron. You can bet general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus had questions about Williams during that meeting.
There’s a ton to unpack here and I’ll try to touch on all of it.
First, let’s look at the draft pick trade value chart created by Rich Hill that is probably similar to the charts each team keeps. Yes, some teams refer to multiple charts when considering trades involving draft picks. Per Hill, the No. 1 pick is worth 1,000 points. The No. 2 pick has a value of 717 points. That difference of 283 is worth about the 19th or 20th pick, which the Commanders do not own. They do have two second-round picks — one from the Bears in the Montez Sweat trade — and those picks (Nos. 36 and 40) are worth a combined 315 points (166 and 149, respectively).
That would be a relatively close match and seems like it could make for a tidy deal. However, a huge premium is placed on the No. 1 pick (really the first few picks), so most deals at the very top of the draft look out of whack when measured against any chart.
In other words, Poles likely could get a better package than the No. 2 pick and two high second-rounders if he engaged in trade discussions with the Commanders for the No. 1 pick. That assumes, of course, new Commanders GM Adam Peters is motivated to make that move.
Peters hasn’t been down this path before, but he has experienced a similar one. He was the assistant GM in San Francisco in 2021 when the 49ers mortgaged the future to trade up with the Miami Dolphins for the No. 3 pick, which they used to select North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. It was a disastrous move, but it didn’t capsize the operation because the 49ers have a terrific roster and talented coaching staff and made the astute decision to select quarterback Brock Purdy with the final pick in the 2022 draft.
The 49ers sent the Dolphins first-round picks in 2021 (No. 12), 2022 (No. 29) and 2023 (No. 29) and a third-round pick in 2022 (No. 101) for the No. 3 pick, a deal that shows how meaningless the draft trade charts can be. Per Hill’s chart, the 49ers received 514 points in value and the Dolphins got more than 1.5 times that with 785 points.
“The charts get thrown out the window in gotta-have-it territory, especially when it involves QBs,” one player personnel director said. “Teams get (overly excited) and a quarterback changes everything. The charts are just a guardrail and you’ve got some recent precedent for what these high picks actually cost.”
However, I don’t believe Poles could get the kind of package he received from the Carolina Panthers last year when he swapped the No. 1 pick. The Bears moved down eight spots to No. 9 in that deal. They would be dropping only one spot in this scenario.
Now, let’s get back to the Bears situation. Quarterback is a serious need and they will do due diligence on all of the prospects. It’s my opinion that process begins with Williams, who a year ago was the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft. The Bears need to get a clear picture of Williams as a player, teammate and person, just as they need to do with North Carolina’s Drake Maye, LSU’s Jayden Daniels and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy.
That process is just beginning and will take a couple of months to finalize. The Bears are much further along evaluating all of the prospects as players. They’re only starting to pull back the layers to find out what makes these guys tick.
When the Bears complete the evaluation process and set their board, if Williams is the top quarterback, I don’t see how they consider a trade with the Commanders. How could a team that has been seeking a franchise quarterback for decades pass on the chance to draft its top-rated quarterback? They have the top pick, there’s no way of telling where they will be drafting next year — or what next year’s quarterback class will look like — and it’s counterintuitive to think there’s a better route.
The only scenario in which I could see a slight possibility the Bears would consider a trade is if they had very similar grades on their top two quarterbacks — a virtual coin flip. In that instance, perhaps they could entertain a conversation with the Commanders. But the chances of this happening seem remote. For a franchise that has been dogged for so long by inadequate quarterback play to get cute and not simply turn in a card with their top-ranked quarterback’s name on it would border on football malpractice.
Remember, this is the team that was all set to draft Joe Montana in 1979 until pivoting to Georgia running back Willie McClendon at the last minute. This is the team that selected Mitch Trubisky instead of Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. It’s the team that lost a coin flip for the chance to draft Terry Bradshaw and traded away Bobby Layne.
I’m not convinced the Commanders hiring Kingsbury signals that they’re in hot pursuit of Williams. They have a ton of needs, and Peters is well aware of the heavy lifting required to turn around a team coming off a 4-13 season. The Commanders need to keep their draft capital and — if anything — add to it as they rebuild a roster that needs help on both lines and at cornerback, just to start with, in addition to quarterback.
New Commanders owner Josh Harris strikes me as the kind of guy who will be steady with Peters, who reportedly received a five-year contract. Harris also owns the Philadelphia 76ers and was behind the whole “Trust the Process” movement. He showed extreme patience and from appearances isn’t the kind of owner who would demand a splash move to draft a local guy. That’s something the previous owner, Daniel Snyder, would have done.
I called a veteran front-office man who worked with Peters to get his take on the idea of the Commanders pushing in all their chips to draft Williams.
“If he strongly believed in it, he wouldn’t hesitate to do it,” the personnel man said. “It would depend on the separation between Caleb and whoever he thinks is next. The other element no one knows yet is how involved is the new owner. Is he Jimmy Haslam or David Tepper and making decisions for Johnny Manziel and Bryce Young? That’s something we don’t know. I wouldn’t say Adam will not do it. He’s going to do what he needs to do to win. It’s just hard to say what he thinks of Caleb and those other QBs and not knowing what the owner’s involvement and ideas are going to be.
“I don’t know that hiring Kingsbury is a strong indicator, or any indicator, of what direction they will go. Kliff has shown competence calling plays and he’s developed quarterbacks and there’s how many OC spots open this year? And there have not been enough qualified and experienced candidates to go around. I don’t think hiring Kingsbury is a strong indicator that they’re going to trade up to draft Caleb. There’s no way that they’ve made up their mind yet, I can promise you that. No one has had that discussion. (New Commanders coach) Dan Quinn has never watched Caleb Williams. I can almost guarantee that.
“You just need to slow everyone down on this (stuff). Adam Peters has never talked to Caleb Williams. Neither has Ryan Poles for that matter. Peters has been with a team that has given up significant assets for a quarterback and it didn’t work out. So he’s going to go through extreme due diligence so that if he ever considers making that move again, it’s the right move to make. It’s not, ‘I saw the dude make splashy plays on TV, I better give up the farm to go get him.’ There’s a lot of work to do for everyone. People need to stop trying to connect all the dots because most of those dots haven’t even been put on paper yet.”
Your best guess: Which position do the Bears strike gold in free agency? — Bobby D.
Ryan Poles was pretty active in free agency last year, spending big to overhaul the middle of the defense with linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards. The Bears also added defensive end DeMarcus Walker, right guard Nate Davis, nose tackle Andrew Billings and running back D’Onta Foreman in the spring and then broke out the checkbook after training camp started to sign defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.
The Bears rank eighth in the league in effective salary-cap space, according to overthecap.com, and they can create another $21.5 million in room if they part with free safety Eddie Jackson and center Cody Whitehair. So once again cap space won’t be an obstacle as Poles charts a course for the offseason.
I would probably temper expectations for free agency, though. Just reading the tea leaves, I don’t think the Bears will be quite as active this offseason. Remember, the goal is to build a young roster via the draft and supplement it with free agents. Chances are decent the biggest contract they write this year will go to cornerback Jaylon Johnson, and if you’re a regular reader of the mailbag, you know I always say the best money spent in free agency is often to prevent your own players from leaving.
I’d also be cautious expecting the team to “strike gold” in free agency. Remember, in many cases, players are available for a reason, and former Bears GM Ryan Pace accurately referred to free agency as “dangerous waters.” That being said, three positions I would keep an eye on are center, defensive end and tight end.
It’s not a great draft class for edge rushers, and the Bears might explore some options on the open market. There are some talented centers in the draft, but the Bears currently don’t own a second-round pick, which might be the sweet spot to get a good one. Maybe Poles could get a second-rounder back if he trades quarterback Justin Fields. Some I’ve spoken to believe the return for Fields might be a third-rounder. Who knows right now?
The Bears have no depth behind Cole Kmet at tight end right now, so they’ll look at options there. I’d also look at safeties if they decide to move on from Jackson. Some really talented wide receivers will be available in free agency, but why not draft one in a strong year at that position?
Just because the Bears have plenty of cap space available doesn’t mean it needs to be like a $20 bill in the pocket of a teenager dying to spend it. Poles needs to plan for the future, and you have to look at some younger players who could warrant a new deal. Left guard Teven Jenkins comes to mind. He has one year remaining on his rookie contract, and a strong offseason and good start to the season could put him in position to be a priority for the front office — though he needs to prove he can stay on the field.
Nickel cornerback Kyler Gordon and strong safety Jaquan Brisker will be eligible for new contracts after the 2024 season. Ditto left tackle Braxton Jones if he holds down that position and plays well. At some point you would imagine the Bears will look at wide receiver DJ Moore. He’s set to earn $16.05 million in each of the next two seasons. There’s no rush to talk about a new deal, but if he has another big season, he’d probably be worthy of an extension.
You also can’t rule out a move at running back, but a little more than a month away from the start of free agency, I don’t know that we’ll see the Bears handing out a slew of large contracts.
What would happen if the Bears used the first pick in the draft on Caleb Williams and he refused to sign with them? — George L., Darien
That would create one giant mess. Let me preface by saying I highly doubt Williams would refuse to sign with the Bears, and to my knowledge they’ve received no indication that’s a possibility. The doomsday idea it could occur, though, sure has sparked an awful lot of conversation.
According to the collective bargaining agreement, if a drafted player has not signed a contract by 30 days before the regular-season opener, the team cannot trade his negotiating rights — or trade the player if he signs after that date — in that year. In other words, the Bears couldn’t reach a deal with Williams after the deadline as part of an agreement to flip him to another team.
The Bears would retain negotiating rights with Williams until the first day of the 2025 draft. If he didn’t sign with them by then, he would be eligible to be drafted by the other 31 teams but not by the Bears. There is no compensatory pick in this situation either. So if the Bears drafted Williams and he decided to sit out a year to re-enter the draft, they wouldn’t get an extra pick in 2025 for failing to sign him.
Again, I can’t stress enough that there’s no reputable information that Williams would attempt to steer away from Halas Hall. He probably would need to hire an agent to handle that kind of delicate business, and it’s believed Williams will go without representation. I find it highly implausible he would sit out an entire season and delay starting the clock on a rookie contract with the goal of getting to a highly lucrative second contract.
What kind of production do you expect out of DJ Moore if the Bears make a change at QB? — @surbano
Moore enjoyed the finest season of his career in 2023 with 96 receptions for 1,364 yards and eight touchdowns. I wouldn’t be particularly concerned about his numbers dipping if the Bears change quarterbacks. Moore was highly productive through his first five seasons in Carolina with a cast of retread and lower-tier quarterbacks. He’ll be fine.
I’d be more interested in what the Bears can get out of their No. 2 wide receiver with a quarterback change. If they upgrade from Justin Fields, they could have a quarterback who does a better job of distributing the ball all over the field. Say what you want about Darnell Mooney, who didn’t have a great season, but he’s a decent player whom I know teams are doing homework on with an eye toward free agency.
There were many, many instances Mooney was wide open this past season and the ball simply didn’t go his way. Sometimes Fields didn’t have time or pressure was coming from that side. Sometimes another player was open. Sometimes Fields didn’t make the necessary read or simply didn’t pull the trigger. That’s one of the things that handcuffed the passing game as WR2 had only 61 targets with 31 receptions for 414 yards. The Bears got limited production after Moore and tight end Cole Kmet, and to take the next step in the passing game, they need a quarterback who does a better job of getting through his progressions and from one side of the field to the other.
I think free-agent interest in Mooney will be decent. Some top-caliber receivers could reach the marketplace, and it’s also a tremendous year to draft a receiver. But with multiple teams I’ve spoken to, there’s a belief Mooney can produce much more than he did this past season.
There is one possibility that would allow the Bears to trade their No. 1 pick: First, they need to determine who they want to draft other than Caleb Williams. Say it’s Drake Maye. Then, trade their No. 1 to Washington for No. 2 with Washington agreeing to take Williams as a condition of the trade. The trade up would net the Bears additional draft capital plus the Bears and Washington both get their favored QB. Assuming Washington decides to move on from Sam Howell as their QB, what’s not to like with this scenario? — Chris R., Midlothian
There’s more than one possibility if the Bears consider trading the top pick. Your scenario is fraught with problems. If the Commanders agreed to terms that pleased the Bears in order to acquire the No. 1 pick, there is no way on this earth they would lock themselves in to taking a certain player. Once the Commanders (or anyone else) pay the price for the pick, it’s theirs to do whatever they want with it. This is a non-starter, and the Commanders aren’t going to telegraph their intentions.
In last week’s mailbag, you mentioned that “what you’ve seen throughout the playoffs is more talented pocket throwers than what the Bears have had for a long stretch, predating the Justin Fields era. C.J. Stroud, Patrick Mahomes, Jordan Love, Josh Allen, Brock Purdy, Jared Goff and Lamar Jackson are all highly skilled throwing from the pocket and on time.” I agree, but do you and the Bears think that Caleb Williams has a pocket presence? I only have seen highlights of a great arm throwing on the run, along with great running skills. This causes me reservation as to possibly getting another and smaller Justin Fields. — John E., Lake Bluff
Williams has high-end pocket awareness and instincts that allow him to navigate inside the pocket and escape and make plays outside of structure. He will have to adjust his game at the pro level and that will require coaching and time. But there’s no question he can make throws from the pocket and has the arm talent and vision required to distribute the ball to all three levels.
Yes, Williams holds the ball too long at times, and some of that is because he can. He has the tools to move and create plays off rhythm. What separates Williams from Fields is Williams is almost always looking to throw when he’s buying extra time. Fields has gotten better in that regard, but even this past season, he was dropping his eyes and reading defenders in front of him to run instead of reading defenders downfield to throw.
Williams will have to adjust and evolve to be more consistent making plays on rhythm from the pocket, but he showed the ability to do that in college. He’s almost always looking to throw when he’s on the move, and that’s what you see from guys like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and even C.J. Stroud. That’s also what Aaron Rodgers did when he was in Green Bay.