Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Caleb Williams' journey to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft

April 25, 2024
No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft Caleb Williams speaks at a press conference after his pick. Photo courtesy of Aleesa Lueckers of Spartan Sports Report.
No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft Caleb Williams speaks at a press conference after his pick. Photo courtesy of Aleesa Lueckers of Spartan Sports Report.

Since 2021, quarterback Caleb Williams has been many things: a five-star recruit out of high school, a college backup and a superstar leading an underperforming team

On Thursday night, he became another: the first name announced at the 2024 NFL Draft

In just three short years, the Washington D.C. native has experienced the full spectrum of football highs and lows. In a matter of seconds in Detroit on Thursday, Williams was named the new savior of the Chicago Bears

"It was a unique moment; a unique time for me because I've been striving and reaching for this moment to be the number one pick," Williams said in a press conference following his selection. "I'm really excited to be on this team. We got a pretty good team."

The Detroit Lions fan contingent at Campus Martius Park made sure Williams felt their presence -- boos rained down on the University of Southern California product as he walked across stage to shake hands with the NFL Commissioner, though they didn't seem to stop his ear-to-ear smile or confident strut. The Williams-to-Chicago dream became a reality for Bears fans last month after Chicago’s front office made its intentions regarding the quarterback position clear

At the outset of the 2024 NFL offseason, Williams’ future was completely unknown. Chicago held the first overall pick but had 2021 first-rounder Justin Fields, who had just wrapped up his third straight season of subpar quarterback play. The Bears’ front office needed to make a move one way or the other, and it did this March, sending Fields to Pittsburgh in exchange for a 2025 sixth-round pick

With Fields gone and Chicago with two picks inside the top 10, the path became clear for general manager Ryan Poles to select Williams as the new face of the Bears’ franchise.

“I can’t imagine a world where they don’t take (Williams). Then again, I can never be too optimistic about this team,” Bears fan Kendra Lowell said with a laugh hours before the first round. “He’s clearly the right pick. I haven’t seen anybody say anything else but that.”

Bears fans have gone through the wringer throughout the years with the team’s quality of quarterback play. Obviously, the Justin Fields era didn’t pan out. Chicago saw flashes of greatness with the talented, yet entirely inconsistent Mitchell Trubisky and Jay Cutler. Bears fans witnessed utter mediocrity in bridge QBS Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman in the early 2000s. The last exhilarating Bears quarterback Lowell remembers is Super Bowl XX Champion Jim McMahon.

Now, Williams – who has been dubbed a generational quarterback talent – gets his chance to give Chicago fans something they haven’t seen in a long time.

"You can tell (Chicago) wants to win from all the way up top, from the executives all the way down to the equipment staff," Williams said. "They all want to win and that's exciting to go into."

The 22-year-old Williams was nationally deemed an NFL talent from the moment he grazed the field in college. At the University of Oklahoma in 2021, when he began his collegiate career under “quarterback whisperer” Lincoln Riley, Williams began the season backing up projected Heisman finalist and top draft pick Spencer Rattler, another five-star quarterback out of high school. But just a month into the season, Williams was thrust into the spotlight.

Many picked the Sooners that season to sweep their Big 12 schedule and coast to the College Football Playoff. However, with Rattler at the helm, the Sooners struggled offensively. These shortcomings were amplified in their Red River Showdown with Texas, as two early Rattler turnovers gave the Longhorns a commanding 18-point lead in the second quarter

Riley turned to his five-star freshman, and the rest is history. Williams ripped off 300 scrimmage yards in less than three quarters and led Oklahoma to one of its most memorable wins in decades

After finishing out the season as the Sooners’ starting quarterback, Williams followed Riley to the University of Southern California the ensuing offseason. His sophomore year was an electric one, as Williams eclipsed over 4,500 passing yards and 40 touchdown passes en route to an 11-3 season and Cotton Bowl appearance

The Trojans and Williams took a step back this past season, amassing just eight wins after beginning the year ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll. Williams’ numbers took a hit, as did his reputation as a potential long-term investment for NFL franchises. He was also scrutinized by fans for a number of non-football-related activities, such as painting his nails, owning a pink phone and crying in his mother’s arms after a tough loss to Washington this fall.  

Fortunately for Williams and Bears fans, these criticisms have nothing to do with football, and the 6-foot-1, 216-pound quarterback’s tape speaks for itself.

"I treat myself the way that I do because I know who that guy is," Williams said. "I love that guy and I'm gonna treat that guy just as that guy was someone else."

Chicago’s front office didn’t stop at their offseason pursuit of Williams. It acquired veteran wide receiver Keenan Allen, one of the most consistent, sure-handed pass catchers in the league, in a trade with the Los Angeles Chargers. It signed free agent running back De’Andre Swift to a three-year, 24-million-dollar deal. The Bears offense also retained star receiver DJ Moore fresh off a 1,364-yard and eight-touchdown campaign in 2023

At No. 9 overall, Chicago selected Rome Odunze, a wide receiver from Washington considered by many a top-three pass catcher in this year's draft pool. He posted over 1,600 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns during the Huskies' run to the national championship. After the pick was announced, Williams had high praise for Odunze, describing how difficult it was to play against him in college.

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"I'm pretty excited to be able to throw the ball to him," Williams said of Odunze. 

Needless to say, Chicago has the firepower to help Williams succeed from day one. What it lacks, however, is depth and experience on the offensive line and playmakers defensively. Like with all NFL draftees, the Bears have a five-year window until Williams’ rookie contract expires. Failure to produce in that time span could result in him leaving in free agency down the road

But, for now, Chicago got its guy. Williams will make his way to the Windy City and attempt to rebirth a Bears franchise that hasn’t made it past wild card weekend since 2010.

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