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NFL Thursday Thoughts: Caleb Williams, supporting cast, defense boosted Bears’ expectations; can they deliver?

Welcome to the first edition of NFL Thursday Thoughts, a series of nine questions to take us through the remainder of the offseason, up until the Chiefs and Ravens kick off the 2024 regular season Sept. 5. Each edition will be a deep dive on a major NFL storyline this season, whether it be regarding teams, players, the league as a whole or some combination of the three.

First comes the first overall pick, Caleb Williams, and the Chicago Bears.

On Dec. 31, 2023, cigar smoke filled the Bears’ locker room after a 37-17 victory over the Falcons. But they might as well have been celebrating the result 800 miles southeast, too. The Panthers had slumped to a 26-0 defeat against the Jaguars, securing the top overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, to be conveyed to Chicago thanks to the team’s deal last offseason.

The white smoke in the Soldier Field locker room, fittingly, signaled change. Hours later, Chicago would be eliminated from playoff contention, and months later, it would run to the podium to select Caleb Williams, turning over yet another new leaf in its long quest to find a franchise quarterback.

Chicago’s futility at quarterback is well known. The Bears are the only franchise to never have a 4,000-yard passer and the only franchise to never have a 30-touchdown passer. Ever since Jim McMahon and Co. won the Super Bowl in the 1985 season, the Bears have drafted 16 quarterbacks. One — Rex Grossman — has won a playoff game with the team. This millennium, the Bears rank dead last in yards per attempt.

That was then. This — Williams — is now. The 2022 Heisman Trophy winner has a powerful, accurate arm, can throw on the move and from a variety of angles and has the creativity and mobility to make something out of nothing. In CBS Sports’ Draft Prospect Rankings, Ryan Wilson wrote, “Caleb Williams is as close to Patrick Mahomes as we’ve seen since 2017,” and later doubled down: “The next Patrick Mahomes isn’t hyperbole.”

That’s a big comparison. And remember, 2017 Mahomes isn’t present-day Mahomes. In fact, Mahomes hardly played in 2017. He sat behind Alex Smith. He also has played his entire career under quarterback whisperer Andy Reid. Those are two luxuries Williams won’t have.

But make no mistake: There are several factors working in Williams’ favor.

Williams enters arguably the best situation we’ve seen for a highly drafted rookie quarterback. D.J. Moore had a career-high 1,364 yards receiving last season. Keenan Allen, meanwhile, continues to leave Father Time and defenders in the dust with 108 receptions for 1,243 yards in 2023. The Bears also used the ninth pick on Rome Odunze, a first-team All-American who led the FBS with 1,640 yards receiving last season and ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds.

Per CBS Sports research, Williams is the first rookie quarterback picked in the top five to inherit multiple wide receivers coming off 1,200-yard seasons. Furthermore, the Bears have the first quarterback-wide receiver pair drafted in the top 10 of the same draft. The Bears also have Cole Kmet and Gerald Everett at tight end and D’Andre Swift, Roschon Johnson and Khalil Herbert in a deep, capable running back room.

It will be up to new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron to pull the right strings. After bouncing around several levels, Waldron rose up the coaching ranks under Sean McVay in Los Angeles from 2017-20. During this time, the Rams used the highest percentage of play-action (32.9% of their dropbacks) in the NFL.

In 2021, Waldron became the Seahawks‘ offensive coordinator, and he brought over a play action-heavy scheme for Russell Wilson. In 2022 and 2023, mostly with Geno Smith at quarterback, the Seahawks used less play action, but when they did use it, it was effective. In Waldron’s three years in Seattle, the Seahawks posted the NFL’s fourth-highest success rate on play action.

It will be a big part of Waldron’s attack and a big adjustment for Williams. From 2021-23, the Seahawks ran over 56% of their play-action plays from under center, right around the league median. Williams threw seven passes from under center in his entire college career, all in short-yardage situations.

This is a transition the vast majority of college quarterbacks undertake. Williams was practicing under-center play-action dropbacks back in January with Rich Scangarello, a veteran offensive coach who has worked with Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia and Will Levis at Kentucky.

“I think the one thing Caleb has shown is that he can be in all sorts of backfield alignments,” head coach Matt Eberflus said in May, via ESPN’s Courtney Cronin. “He did a great job at his pro day, he’s played quarterback his whole life, so I think the biggest thing will be just the footwork and really mastering that first step from under center, something that he’s taken pride in already and really gotten a jump on in this rookie minicamp. … It wasn’t something where Caleb was starting from total scratch with the drops and his footwork.”

Even though it was rarely from under center, Williams showed throughout his college career that he could excel with play action and from both inside and outside the pocket, keys for a play action-heavy scheme.

Caleb Williams’ yards per attempt in collegePlay actionNo play action

In Pocket

10.1

9.1

Outside Pocket

7.3

9.1

If there is one main area of worry for Williams, it’s timing, especially outside the pocket.

On throws from the pocket, Williams averaged 2.64 seconds to throw, on the higher side but not too concerning, especially for a quarterback with his mobility and creativity. His 171.8 passer efficiency rating from the pocket was fifth in the country from 2021-23, slightly ahead of last year’s top pick, Bryce Young (167.4), as well as this year’s No. 2 (Jayden Daniels) and No. 3 (Drake Maye) picks.

It’s worth noting C.J. Stroud led the category and won Offensive Rookie of the Year after a dazzling 2023 debut. Throwing effectively from the pocket is a must — and a translatable skill — in the NFL.

Outside the pocket, while Williams’ passer efficiency ranked sixth nationally, he averaged 5.16 seconds to throw, a gargantuan number. He must learn to use his out-of-structure magic without relying on it. His 30 touchdown passes when pressured were most in FBS from 2021-23. However, he also took 84 sacks — ninth most in the country — and his 7.1% sack rate was above the national average.

This balancing act will come behind an uncertain offensive line, too. Last season, the Bears allowed the league’s highest pressure rate, but take that number with a grain of salt. Bears quarterbacks also had the longest average time to throw — an issue that ultimately cost Justin Fields his job. How youngsters Darnell Wright (first round, 2023), Braxton Jones (fifth round, 2022) and Teven Jenkins (second round, 2021) progress will be key.

Overall, it’s a new scheme with a new quarterback and several new weapons. That’s plenty of newness for a team hoping Williams represents a new direction behind center — one that’s decades in the making.

Offense looks promising, but defense could be team’s strength

While many eyes will be on Williams and the offense, it’s the defense that finished 2023 on an upswing and could be the strength of the 2024 team.

From Week 12 onward, the Bears ranked second in interception rate and fourth in success rate. They allowed the third-lowest passer rating and, using the all-encompassing expected points added, were the league’s third-best defense behind the Patriots and Jets. The 15.1 points per game allowed led the league.

Is the defense really that good? Probably not. Chicago faced backups — Joshua Dobbs, Joe Flacco and Taylor Heinicke — in half of the games over that span. But there are pieces in place for a strong unit.

Pro Bowler Jaylon Johnson leads a young, talented secondary that also includes Tyrique Stevenson, Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker. Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards form a dependable veteran linebacking duo. And the Bears’ defense, unsurprisingly, played some of its best ball after Montez Sweat arrived via trade. He led the team with six sacks despite playing only nine games with Chicago. Both Johnson and Sweat will be around for the long haul after signing four-year extensions.

Chicago will need this group to perform. The NFC North looks to be a strong one, with the Packers coming off an impressive year with a historically young offense that should only get better. The Lions still hold the mantle as division favorites and have an excellent, well-designed scheme. And even with a new quarterback, the Vikings will present challenges with Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, Aaron Jones, a strong offensive line and offensive guru Kevin O’Connell calling the shots.

Furthermore, the Bears face the Texans, Colts and Rams within the first four weeks. They can’t afford a slow start. As nice — and easy — as it is to remember the strong finish, it’s equally easy to forget the dismal start, one that included allowing 38 points to the Packers, 41 points to the Chiefs and 31 points to the Broncos. A slow start defensively would put a lot of pressure on a rookie quarterback and an offense already facing plenty of it.

Do Bears have enough to reach playoffs?

Despite it all — the hype around Williams, the historically great landing spot, the strong defense — the odds are against Chicago making the playoffs. Andrew Luck is the only quarterback taken first overall in the NFL Draft to start a playoff game as a rookie.

On one hand, you can credibly argue the Bears were not your typical team drafting No. 1 overall. They had that selection, thanks to the Panthers’ ineptitude. Add in a good finish, a strong core, a plethora of impressive free-agent signings and an exceptional situation for an uber-talented quarterback, and you can paint the picture for Williams joining Luck in exclusive company.

On the other hand, studies show the finish to one season doesn’t correlate to the next season any more than the start does. And the start was brutal. Eberflus was very much on the hot seat last year, and a solid finish against subpar competition might have saved his job, for better or for worse. There are real questions about him, his new-look staff, the offensive line, the pass rush and, of course, the quarterback.

It’s that final question that the Bears desperately need Williams to answer definitively. He has been set up to succeed. He has the bona fides to succeed. Ultimately, he’ll determine the heights the season reaches, but the potential is as high as it’s ever been for any rookie quarterback.

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Author: Zachary Pereles
July 11, 2024 | 10:10 am

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