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Caleb Williams confidential: Buzz from the NFL scouting combine on what the Chicago Bears must consider with the No. 1 draft pick

INDIANAPOLIS — Around 9 a.m. local time Friday, USC quarterback Caleb Williams will step onto Podium 4 inside Great Hall J at the Indianapolis Convention Center and look out over a mob of football reporters trying to use every second of their allotted 20 minutes to take their snapshot of the most talked about prospect in this year’s NFL draft class.

What makes Williams tick? What are his greatest playing strengths? How will he respond to both the widespread praise and the array of criticism aimed at him?

From that stage, Williams will see the horde, listen to the flurry of rapid-fire questions and attempt to give his sales pitch for what he hopes to offer a team as its franchise quarterback.

The Chicago Bears own the No. 1 selection in the draft, which begins April 25, and are immersed in a study of the quarterback class — with Williams at the center of their radar. General manager Ryan Poles has made it clear his homework on draft-eligible quarterbacks requires a heightened focus on each prospect’s wiring beyond on-field productivity.

“I’ve talked about that a lot,” Poles said Tuesday. “What is the (player’s) makeup, his leadership? How do they handle pressure? How do they handle pressure in a big city like ours? A lot of those factors go into it.”

The Bears have a long way to go in their vetting process. What has become crystal clear in recent months, though, is there’s a high volume of opinion on Williams as talent evaluators, coaches and analysts try to assess his skill set and forecast his future.

Around just about every corner of the NFL scouting combine this week, someone in the league seems ready and eager to chime in on the evaluation of Williams and the pivotal decision facing Poles and the Bears.

Over the last two months, the Tribune has gathered intel from a wide variety of sources on what the chief decision-makers at Halas Hall need to consider to guide a decision that could change the direction of the franchise for the next decade. That mission continues this week in Indianapolis, furthering an unofficial Williams scouting report we began compiling last month.

Here are 12 more things to consider about the USC quarterback’s talent, background and potential.

1. The talent portion of the Williams evaluation is, on the whole, extremely glowing.

One league executive described Williams as “the total package” and “the clear-cut top quarterback” in this draft class. He was most impressed by Williams’ accuracy — from inside the pocket and on the move and to all three levels of the field. Another GM compared the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner to an accomplished orchestra conductor with his ability to gracefully control everything going on around him.

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah finds himself consistently amazed by Williams’ arm talent.

“He’s just an elite, elite thrower,” Jeremiah said. “He can make every type of throw. People love all the crazy run-around throws, obviously. But I’m talking about great throws from different arm angles. I’m talking about up-and-down touch throws. I’m talking about (throws) vertically down the field, driving the ball. Even just simple swing passes. It’s everything.

“You know when you see Ken Griffey Jr. swing? You just know, like, that is a pure swing. Well, this kid is a pure thrower.”

2. Highlight this trait in the Williams talent file: quick.

Now circle that. Then underline it.

Williams is a quick processor. He makes quick decisions. He has quick hands. That’s a quick catalyst to next-level success.

The biggest significance for a team like the Bears? Williams’ quickness could allow their offense to function and thrive with the quick passing attack in ways it never could with Justin Fields at the controls.

“He has such lightning-quick hands that you can easily lean on him to make those types of throws — smoke screens, quick hitters, those kinds of things,” Jeremiah said. “For a young quarterback, that’s an incredibly valuable way to bake in some completions.”

That can become a cheat code to boost passing production early. That paint-by-numbers production should then lead to heightened confidence, which, theoretically, should catalyze added production. Suddenly the water wheel might really begin to turn.

One coach who has studied Fields extensively asserted that his passing production — an average of 174 yards over 38 NFL starts — seemed to be inhibited by a lack of quick-twitch reaction. That frequently prevented Fields from avoiding sacks or maneuvering into better throwing lanes in the pocket. The slow-developing mechanics of Fields’ draw and delivery also seemed to restrict the quick passing attack.

Those things, according to one talent evaluator, don’t figure to be a problem for Williams when he sets foot on the NFL stage next fall.

“He’s going to have more than one 300-yard passing game next year,” the evaluator said. “I can confidently say that.”

3. Williams’ ability to extend a play and turn it into a breathtaking magic trick might be his greatest gift.

Williams does that consistently through a combination of arm talent, instincts and on-the-move vision. He uses physics-defying throws with Matrix-like body bends. His ability to sense pressure and react properly is natural. And when he escapes to the outside, he regularly does so with poise and purpose, his eyes scanning for a big passing play.

Said ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller: “What makes him great is that ability to string the defense along and hold the ball until that absolute last moment and then find a player (to throw to).”

Williams’ ability to buy time should, well, buy him time in the NFL, allowing him to have early success as he works through bumpy patches in his development.

He also has a ready-made willingness to shoot his shots. He is a fearless risk-taker with proven production. That trait likely will cause more than a few headaches during Williams’ rookie season as he better understands the plays he can and can’t make. But it’s not something NFL evaluators want to coach out of him either.

That’s where the most apt comparisons to Patrick Mahomes have come in. One talent evaluator said Williams’ playmaking flair during his college career at Oklahoma and USC had shades of the things Mahomes showed at Texas Tech in 2015 and 2016.

Don’t forget, during the pre-draft process in 2017, some of Mahomes’ greatest gifts — his unquenchable big-play thirst, ability to extend plays and backyard football panache — were labeled as concerning. The Bears front office later acknowledged that it drafted Mitch Trubisky over Mahomes that year in part because it had identified Trubisky as having a higher floor.

“We thought that Patrick Mahomes was a much more risky selection, a more volatile (player) with a greater chance of missing,” former Bears director of player personnel Josh Lucas said last fall. “Obviously we were wrong.”

4. Williams’ transition to the NFL will have significant bumps.

Jeremiah gives Williams a “some assembly required” label. Patience, polish and development will be needed.

At times, Williams’ quest to make the big play prohibits him from making the smartest or most efficient decision. There are instances all over his USC game video to validate such concerns.

“There are times I wish I could yell at him: ‘Just take the check-down!’” Jeremiah said.

Particularly during Williams’ rookie season, some evaluators are concerned his elite ability as an on-the-move playmaker could become a crutch he relies on too frequently rather than learning to become more effective inside the pocket.

“He got into bad habits this year,” Jeremiah said. “He’s trying to hit home runs.”

Williams fumbled eight times last season and showed concerning ball-security habits that need to be cleaned up. He also will need time to acclimate to playing under center more frequently in the NFL. And he will need to link up with an offensive coaching staff that can connect with him quickly and foster his early growth.

“I’m not worried about him having NFL success,” Miller said. “But it’s going to be important wherever he’s drafted — and it sounds like it’s going to be Chicago — that they have a framework in place for him.

“I think it really helps them that they have Ryan Poles as general manager, who was in Kansas City and watched some of the guardrails the Chiefs put up for Mahomes so that he could be great and be creative but still have that early success because he did have a good scheme and system around him.”

5. The pre-draft deep dive into Williams’ character review is intensifying.

One evaluator stressed that while the assessment of Williams’ talent must center around projections of how he will perform on Sundays, a big component of his character review will be forecasting how he will react on Mondays, how he plans to manage his time on Tuesdays and how he is equipped to reset for Wednesdays. That’s a huge part of life as an NFL quarterback that almost no one in the general public understands.

Williams must quickly establish a productive routine that helps him juggle his football responsibilities with off-the-field opportunities.

One AFC executive hopes Williams grasps the time commitment, stamina and focus required to play quarterback in the NFL at even a middle-tier level. That executive made an extreme suggestion that Williams steer away from all endorsements and commercial opportunities through his rookie year.

“Honestly, I need to know what this guy’s agenda is,” another source said. “I want to feel like he is most concerned with getting in the building to get better while letting that (outside opportunity) come to him in Year 2 and Year 3.

“At that position? With how much everyone has invested? I need this kid to be football first, personal brand second. I have to feel that out.”

That won’t be easy for a new-age prospect such as Williams, who already has done big-brand commercials and made a healthy amount of money from endorsements during college.

“You’ve got to make sure there’s a true leader in there,” former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager and Sirius XM analyst Mark Dominik said. “And that your locker room is going to want to follow him because of what he can do. You want to have belief that his teammates will have that confidence in him and will end up playing better because he is going to raise their game as well.

That is what you are really looking for.”

6. NFL teams are trying to learn more about who is in Williams’ ear — and tugging on his arm.

In other words, they want to determine who all is in Williams’ inner circle and how influential they are and will continue to be.

Who is giving him advice? Who is guiding his decisions? Who might try to steer his career in myriad ways?

Carl Williams, the quarterback’s father, has been the source of much chatter in recent months — and particularly so this week at the combine. Inside league circles, the elder Williams has been described as “detailed,” “heavily involved,” “calculated” and “a lot.”

One source said Carl “is probably very well-intentioned, as a good father should be” but went on to express concern on how the younger Williams likely will have to manage his dad’s involvement as his career advances.

Said another talent evaluator: “It’s a bit messy. My sense is that this kid really likes football. He’s a good kid. It’s just that his dad really doesn’t know how the process works and has been shooting the moon with things he’s asking about and asking for.”

7. Carl Williams has been influential in Caleb’s football journey and figures to remain that way.

Understandably, Carl steered his son’s college recruitment and then two years ago oversaw Caleb’s venture into the NCAA transfer portal. NFL teams are focused on learning how involved Carl plans to remain with all of the layers in his son’s pro career — and how hellbent the Williamses might be to buck the system as it relates to things such as contract structures and union involvement.

Last week, when the NFL Players Association released its log of player representation for this year’s draft prospects, Williams was notably absent, currently without an NFLPA-certified agent to help him navigate this phase of his advancement. At the combine teams are working to figure out who Williams’ point people are and will be and what their primary motivations seem to be as the quarterback assembles a team of advisers.

Said one GM whose team isn’t in the market for a quarterback: “That’s going to be the biggest issue for whoever takes him. It’s all this extracurricular stuff. I’d definitely want to figure that part out first and foremost.

“Like, he can do everything as a player. Well, now let’s get into eliminating distractions off the field. Because there’s a saying I believe in: You have to prevent yourself from losing before you can ever win anything. And that’s about eliminating all the bull(crap). This position is hard enough.”

8. Questions about Williams’ emotional maturity are a significant part of the vetting process.

While the combine puts participants through on-field drills, body measurements and tests that measure strength, speed and leaping ability, the NFL has not designed a test for thick skin. For some teams, including the Bears, that guesswork may become the key part of the Williams evaluation over the next month and a half.

Teams will be interested to determine whether, under the most intense heat the NFL brings, Williams might disintegrate like a newspaper in a campfire or whether he would harden like clay in a kiln.

Current Bears quarterback Justin Fields has been a model of mental toughness and emotional stability over his three seasons in Chicago. His predecessor Trubisky had more difficulty steering through struggle and criticism.

With Williams, the Bears will try to administer that DNA test.

In November, after a 10-point loss to Washington, Williams drew heavy criticism for climbing into the stands and crying in the arms of his mom. He elaborated on his emotions during the postgame news conference, telling reporters, “I want to go home and cuddle with my dog and watch some shows.”

In league circles, those types of expressions and actions raise eyebrows. One former head coach said he would hope to get a sense that Williams “has sand in his base,” like the inflatable kids punching bags that get walloped but always pop back to the upright position.

An NFC offensive assistant coach said he would be most curious to explore with Williams how he can channel his passion positively in the demanding and unforgiving NFL world. That emotional management will be especially important if Williams becomes a Bear and has more than 100 years of pressure from a success-starved city on his shoulders.

“You talk about the Chicago market and understanding the way a kid is wired, you have to take all that into consideration,” the assistant coach said. “If he has a bad game or two or three, can he reset? Does he have people around him who start insinuating that the coach needs to be fired? That’s a real thing that you have to pay attention to and be dialed into.”

That’s all part of the intel-gathering process.

“You’re building a profile and making a judgment on what kind of person you believe they will be when they’re going through hell, when they’re going through struggle,” the assistant continued. “You want to know he can respond, that he can handle it all. If you’re an NFL organization investing years and millions and the careers of so many people, that’s stuff you have to be extremely careful with.”

9. Inside the USC program, there has been noteworthy praise of Williams’ commitment and approach.

Trojans passing game coordinator Dennis Simmons has three years of experience with Williams and is convinced the NFL’s character curiosity surrounding the quarterback, while understandable, ultimately will be overblown.

“We’re about to enter that silly season, man,” Simmons said. “People are going to look for reasons and things for why they shouldn’t draft him. But once you realize there really isn’t a justifiable reason that you shouldn’t take him, then it’s like, ‘Is this really too good to be true?’

“I would just tell the decision makers at that level: ‘Trust your gut. Just trust your gut.’ Because we did. And you see how it worked out for us.”

Simmons was with Williams during his breakout freshman season at Oklahoma in 2021. He watched Williams win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore while propelling USC to 11 victories and a Cotton Bowl appearance.

And sure, the 2023 results — with the Trojans going 8-5 and Williams’ production dipping somewhat — weren’t ideal. But Simmons saw Williams grinding through the finish line of his junior season.

“This kid could have done a lot of things when the struggles came,” Simmons said. “But he didn’t. He kept playing and kept working and kept trying to do whatever it was he could to get our team into a position to be successful. To me, that said a lot about who he is as a person but also about what his approach and mentality are toward the game itself.”

10. Some USC teammates have described Williams as passionate, detailed and demanding.

Of note to one league source, Williams took his offensive line to the 2022 Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, a gesture described as genuinely unselfish. Another source noted how seamlessly Williams took over for Spencer Rattler in the sixth game of his freshman season at Oklahoma and how quickly he acclimated a year later after transferring to USC.

Those should be helpful experiences for Williams to draw on as he transitions to his first NFL team.

Simmons described Williams as a “natural leader” whose voice will resonate inside the locker room.

“He galvanizes your team,” Simmons said. “Guys want to play for him. We saw that.”

As teams do their background work on Williams, Simmons has been happy to lend his perspective.

“For me,” he said, “the biggest misconception that floats around is that Caleb is some sort of elitist, spoiled, selfish kid. He is the farthest from that. That kid is grounded. He is all about team and he is all about winning.”

Endorsements like that will carry weight.

11. What Williams’ teammates tell NFL teams privately during the pre-draft process also will fold into the scouting report.

Houston Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said Tuesday his team’s attraction to quarterback C.J. Stroud last year spiked, in part, because of all the glowing reviews Stroud’s Ohio State teammates provided.

“I remember being here at the combine last year,” Ryans said, “and every Ohio State player who sat in our room spoke highly of C.J. and the type of leader he was and what he meant to them with the things he did to help them.

“You can’t hide. Your true character always shows.”

Before Ryans made that revelation, an executive from another team expressed surprise at how muted the praise for Williams had been from USC players during private meetings on the all-star game circuit this winter.

“That’s a bit of a red flag when he’s this good of a player,” the executive said. “You just don’t get that confidence that he is an undisputed leader. You walk away with questions like, ‘Is he going to be the guy in the locker room that guys like, that guys follow?’

“You want your quarterback to be the one everyone in the room is following and looking up to. With Caleb specifically, can he be that guy? I honestly don’t know.”

Inside league circles, Williams has been described as having a bit of an introverted personality that can make it hard for others to connect. He also has certain personality eccentricities, the executive said, that at a minimum will have to be acknowledged and managed.

“He’s not just your normal grind, work-hard, guy’s-guy quarterback,” the executive said. “He’s very different than that. And that’s OK. But you at least better be aware of that.”

That executive wouldn’t put a “high maintenance” warning on Williams but did deduce that the quarterback has been “coddled” throughout his high school and college years and has been able to “live the high life for a while now.”

“You’ll have to humble him, really,” the executive said. “It’s: ‘Yeah, you’re going to be the guy. But you have to do all the (crap) the other rookies have to do. You have to work your ass off. You have to be on time to everything. You have to stay late watching film.’

“Can Caleb do that? I don’t know. But those things affect the building.”

12. The Bears are just beginning to increase their firsthand interactions with Williams.

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Poles, coach Matt Eberflus and their group were afforded an 18-minute meeting with Williams on Wednesday night at the combine. In a lot of ways, that will become an icebreaker and stage-setter for how the team approaches its later encounters with Williams.

“With any type of relationship,” Poles said Tuesday, “it’s time on task and just getting to know the personality.”

In March, a Bears contingent will travel to USC’s pro day. At some point, ideally, they also will align with Williams for a private workout, a dinner and an all-day visit to Halas Hall. Every one of those interactions will give the Bears a better feeling for which direction they should lean.

The character conversation will remain central to the team’s homework. At some point, however, it also might give way to the big-picture forecast of what Williams will be on game days for many years to come.

Said one offensive assistant coach: “You may have a guy who doesn’t check all or even most of the plus boxes you want on your character page. But then you’ll look around at each other and say, ‘But, man, this guy’s great in the fourth quarter. So …’”

Added an AFC executive: “You’ll express your concerns. And they all may be valid. But then it’s possible everyone in the room may agree collectively, like, ‘Still, this guy is truly an elite talent and can lift our franchise to the next level.’”

Another GM felt strongly that the pre-draft connection with a prospect can prove critical to getting his career started the right way.

“You go as that quarterback goes,” the GM said. “In those early years, it’s like the plane taking off. I’ve heard it from pilots before. It’s taking off and landing that are the two moments. You have to take this thing off the right way or it’s going to crash before you ever get it to the cruising altitude.”

Right now, the Bears remain at the gate, preparing for the boarding process. Stand by for announcements on the flight’s status.