Caleb Williams is ready to roar after the Chicago Bears use the No. 1 NFL draft pick for their latest shot at a franchise QB

DETROIT — For the last several weeks and again during the day Thursday, Caleb Williams tried to envision what this milestone moment might feel like. As he walked the red carpet of the NFL draft outside the Fox Theatre, Williams admitted he was repeating the introduction, first in his head and then out loud.

With the first pick in the NFL draft …

With the first pick in the NFL draft …

With the first pick in the NFL draft …

Williams had spent 12 years working toward having his name announced behind that statement. And as he neared the moment when that dream would become reality and one of his largest football goals would be achieved, he felt an odd combination of disbelief and calm.

“It feels surreal,” Williams said. “But then again it doesn’t. Because this is exactly what I’ve worked toward.”

And when it finally happened? When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Williams as this year’s top pick and the new quarterback of the Chicago Bears? Williams’ heart began to race. His energy spiked.

Football’s worst-kept secret became public shortly after 7 p.m. CDT Thursday when the Bears, from their draft room at team headquarters in Lake Forest, sent an electronic message to Hart Plaza 326 miles away. Once that alert was received and the decision transcribed onto a card that was handed to Goodell, Williams’ long-awaited moment arrived.

The goal he set at age 10 was realized. And Bears fans’ recurring dream of finding a franchise quarterback to unlock a long run of championship contention was reawakened.

Williams, who had been notably relaxed during his time in Detroit, appeared to get a major adrenaline rush. With an enthusiastic speed walk, he roared with excitement as he reached the draft stage.

“I didn’t know how I was going to react in the moment,” he said. “I was trying to think it through in my head throughout the process. But nothing feels better than actually being in the moment, actually getting that call. I didn’t feel nervous. I didn’t feel any of that. I was anxious and ready to go.”

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His scream was an expression of pure excitement.

“It came from all the hard work, all the energy, all the sacrifice I put in to finally reach this stage,” Williams said.

Yes, Chicago. We’re doing this again.

And Williams has a new buddy in his draft class in Rome Odunze, the talented wide receiver from Washington whom the Bears selected at No. 9 while Williams was working his way through the second floor of the Cadillac Center during a long circuit of interviews.

Indeed, there was another howl.

“I went crazy,” Williams said. “Then I went crazy again. And then I saw him. We dapped each other up. We shared a moment. It’s sick. It’s crazy that that came to fruition.”

Added Odunze: “It was crazy. I went blank for a second just thinking, ‘Oh! I just got drafted!’ I was thinking about that moment. And then I came back to reality and was like, ‘Oh, yeah. Caleb just got drafted here too.’ So being able to see him play and realize how special he is, I’m super excited to go tear up the NFL with him.”

In a draft loaded with first-round talent that created plenty of intrigue for Thursday’s 32-pick roll call, Williams distinguished himself as the top dog in a highly regarded quarterback class, creating one of the least suspenseful and most anticipated moments in recent draft memory.

In terms of skill set, the consensus among NFL talent evaluators is that Williams offers the total package. He is lauded most for his off-script playmaking gifts. He’s able to turn trash into treasure with his agility outside the pocket, feel for the game and rare arm talent that allows him to alter the velocity and arc on his throws to find the big play.

“Pure magic,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

Added Joel Klatt, a college football analyst for Fox Sports and a draft contributor to NFL Network: “Every quarterback has to have a superpower, at least to reach this point of being considered for the No. 1 pick. Caleb’s superpower, his best trait, is to not just be effective but to really hurt a defense when he’s creating. It’s not when he’s running but when he’s creating. His ability to throw with accuracy, power, leverage, touch, drive the ball — all on the run and off platform — is special.”

It would be a mistake, though, to classify Williams as a one-trick pony. Klatt studies quarterbacks across five key categories when projecting their NFL potential: arm talent, schematic intelligence, pocket passing production, on-the-move playmaking creativity and running ability.

“I have been evaluating quarterbacks for the draft for a little more than 10 years, and Caleb’s the only quarterback I have evaluated who is elite in all five of those categories,” Klatt said. “And that’s why for two years we’ve been talking about him as the No. 1 quarterback prospect.”

The Bears fell in love with Williams as a player through their scouting process over the last two seasons. In 2022 the USC quarterback threw for 4,537 yards, accounted for 52 total touchdowns, won the Heisman Trophy and revived the Trojans program during his first season on campus after transferring from Oklahoma.

His 2023 season wasn’t nearly as sparkling, as USC sputtered to a 7-5 regular season and Williams didn’t even crack the top 10 in Heisman voting. But he still threw for 3,633 yards and 30 touchdowns with five interceptions while propelling a Trojans offense that finished third in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring (41.8 points per game), fifth in passing (333 yards per game) and 10th in total offense (467.6 yards per game).

When the predraft vetting process reached the next level this winter and spring, Bears general manager Ryan Poles, coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron set out to learn much more about Williams as a person.

What makes him tick? What knocks him off course? How passionate about football is he? How does he lead?

As Poles and Eberflus heard more about Williams from his teammates at both USC and Oklahoma, they were struck by how respected and admired he was.

“When you talk to his teammates, they don’t like him, they love him,” Poles said. “It’s his leadership, how he brings people together. He’s intentional with his leadership.”

The Bears first met with Williams briefly at the NFL scouting combine in February, then reunited with him in Los Angeles over parts of three days leading up to USC’s pro day in March. The team also hosted Williams at Halas Hall in April, the final step in confirming he had the makeup they wanted in order to take the steering wheel of the franchise.

It was after that trip to Lake Forest that Williams recognized his union with the Bears was imminent.

“I felt comfortable,” he said. “I felt good. I was happy and ready to go.”

As he left Halas Hall, he jumped on the phone, sold that the Bears are building a winning culture.

“When I got there and got around everybody — the players, coaches, executive staff — I fell in love with it,” Williams said. “I enjoyed it. I hopped on a call and said: ‘I’m OK being here. This is going to be all right. We’re going to do it and we’re going to have fun doing it.'”

Leading up to draft night, the Bears talked internally about Williams’ natural calm and self-assurance and noted how, during a monthslong predraft process in which rumor, speculation and judgment about his personality swirled through social media and sports debate shows, Williams seemed totally unruffled and comfortable navigating that space.

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“He’s been public enemy No. 1 with all this criticism that has been coming his way,” Jeremiah said. “And he has just stayed focused and gone about his business.”

Williams appears to have the experience and skill to deal with what now awaits him in Chicago. The pressure. The expectations. The loud criticism. The microanalysis of his every move on and off the field.

“It’s coming,” Jeremiah said. “Especially in a big market. You’re going to get blamed for every loss and you have to be able to stay on course. Having already been through that in a huge market in Los Angeles and then having all this national attention on you, that’s not a practice a lot of these quarterbacks have coming in.”

Williams believes he has found the secret to surfing through that world with optimal serenity.

“I feel comfy in my own skin,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. I feel comfy in my own skin, in who I am, how hard I work, what I do in my daily life, how I act and how I treat people with respect.”

There are no guarantees Williams will soon end the most maddening of Bears droughts. Thirteen seasons since their last playoff victory. Thirty-six years since they last enjoyed three consecutive winning seasons. Forever — literally — since they had a 4,000-yard passer or a 30-touchdown-pass season.

As the predraft process unfolded, Williams sought answers for how that possibly could be. He was perplexed — as most of Chicago has been for decades — that one organization could be so consistently off course at his position.

“You look into it and you wonder why,” Williams said. “I asked questions, obviously. I have no shame in asking questions. So you ask why. They were all for answering questions. And they told the truth.”

Williams said Bears representatives assured him they recognized the quarterback development mistakes of the past and are working with new people and methodologies to change that.

Now he has his chance — and the responsibility really — to change all of that and put the Bears on a new track. But Williams doesn’t view it as a pressure-packed challenge.

“I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “That may be the narrative. For me, I handle my job. I try to be a great teammate first and foremost. I handle my business on and off the field. And I go to work.

“I enjoy what I do. I love what I do. I’m in there with my guys. And my guys are seeing me. They see how hard I work — their guy, their QB — and we go get it. We go win games together.”

The journey began Thursday night.