Bears select QB Caleb Williams with No. 1 pick in NFL draft

ByCourtney Cronin ESPN logo
Friday, April 26, 2024

The Chicago Bears hope their decades-long search for a franchise quarterback ended Thursday night when they selected USC's Caleb Williams with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

Williams, 22, won the Heisman Trophy in 2022 when he threw for 4,537 yards, 42 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions in 500 pass attempts. He is the second Trojans quarterback to be selected with the first pick during the common draft era (Carson Palmer in 2003) and the sixth USC player to be taken at the top of the draft.

Williams has been labeled a generational talent and has widely been considered the top quarterback prospect in the 2024 draft class, which includes LSU's Jayden Daniels and North Carolina's Drake Maye.

"I didn't know how I was going to react in the moment," Williams said. "I was trying to think through it in my head throughout the process, but nothing feels better than actually being in the moment, actually getting that call. You know, I don't feel nervous, I don't feel any of that. I was anxious and ready to go, just ready to get the call so I could walk out there on stage and just finally be back on a team is honestly what I'm excited for."

With the No. 9 pick, the Bears added another pass-catcher for Williams, selecting Washington receiverRome Odunze, who joins an already loaded wide receiver corps featuring DJ Moore and Keenan Allen.The four worked out together last week in Los Angeles.

"I learned a lot," Odunze said. "It was a great workout, just four of us getting better, working on our craft. That's exactly what it was. I see that Keenan's smooth. I see how explosive DJ is. And I see that Caleb can sling the ball wherever he chooses. I'm super excited to work with that group now, officially, and I think we can do special things."

Odunze led the FBS with 1,640 receiving yards last season and had 92 catches and 13 touchdown receptions.

It became clear during the pre-draft process that Chicago was not entertaining other top quarterbacks or giving thought to drafting anyone other than Williams with the top pick.

Williams was the only quarterback the Bears hosted on a top-30 visit. The Bears were the only team Williams visited ahead of the draft.

"I felt good at that point," Williams said. "Getting around the guys, the coaches, the executives. And so, I was around the facility mainly. I didn't really go into the city. Obviously, the facility is where I'm going to be at for the majority of my time, throughout weeks and days. I was around the guys in the facility, and I felt comfortable. I felt good. I was happy, and ready to go."

Selecting Williams first overall was set in motion earlier this offseason when the Bears traded quarterbackJustin Fieldsto the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 2025 conditional sixth-round pick. Fields, who was drafted 11th overall by Chicago in 2021, started 38 games over three seasons and helped the Bears to a 7-10 record last season, the team's best finish since 2020.

Williams is the first quarterback drafted by general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, who were hired by the Bears in 2022.

Days after Fields was traded, the Bears sent a large contingent of at least nine coaches and front office members to USC's pro day and spent three days getting to know Williams in Los Angeles, which included a private dinner with the quarterback and several of his Trojans wide receiver teammates.

The Bears secured the top pick that they used to draft Williams nine months after sending last year's No. 1 overall pick to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for four picks -- including Carolina's 2024 first-round selection -- and wide receiverMoore.

The Panthers finished with a league-worst 2-15 record, while the Bears won four of their last six games after starting the season 0-4.

The 6-foot-1 Williams dazzled the college football world from his freshman year at Oklahoma in 2021 before transferring to USC for the 2022 and 2023 seasons. While his passing numbers took a slight dip (3,633 yards) during the Trojans' 7-5 regular-season finish in 2023, Williams still threw for 30 touchdowns and just five interceptions and capped his three-year college career as one of 87 players in FBS history responsible for 100 touchdowns and 10,000 yards of offense while committing fewer than 20 turnovers (19).

Williams will enter an atypical situation for a rookie quarterback taken with the No. 1 overall pick. Chicago was active in building out its supporting cast on offense in free agency by signing running backD'Andre Swiftandtight end Gerald Everett, and acquiring six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Allenlast month by sending a fourth-round pick to the Los Angeles Chargers.

There has never been a quarterback selected with a top-five NFL draft pick who played his rookie season with multiple players who had at least 1,200 receiving yards in the previous NFL season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In his 11th season with the Chargers, Allen posted 1,243 receiving yards, while Moore had a career-best 1,364 yards during his first season in Chicago.

The Bears hope Williams puts an end to their long period of futility at the quarterback position. Chicago is the only NFL franchise to never have a quarterback throw for 4,000 yards or 30 touchdowns in a season.

Williams came to his pre-draft visit eager to hear the Bears' plan for reversing that trend.

"You look into it and you wonder why," Williams said. "I asked questions, obviously. I have no shame in asking questions. So, you know, you ask why and things like that. They're all for answering questions, they told the truth and that's what that was. They told me the truth. They told me and my dad the truth about why and what and where and how it's going to change. That's what we're excited about."

Before drafting Williams, the Bears used a first-round pick on a quarterback six times during the common draft era (Fields,Mitchell Trubisky, Rex Grossman, Cade McNown, Jim Harbaugh and Jim McMahon). Those quarterbacks combined for zero selections to the AP All-Pro teams and only two Pro Bowls as Chicago quarterbacks.

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