Column: After 3 days with Caleb Williams on and off the field, Chicago Bears grow closer to making the USC QB the No. 1 pick

LOS ANGELES — Roughly 48 hours after trading Justin Fields and eliminating any lingering doubt as to their intentions to begin anew at quarterback, the Chicago Bears brass was out to dinner with Caleb Williams.

The USC quarterback has been the presumptive top pick for a long time. Maybe since collecting the Heisman Trophy at the end of his sophomore season in 2022. Definitely since the end of last spring’s draft.

Thanks to some good fortune and a calculated move to trade the No. 1 pick in 2023, the Bears find themselves in position to have their pick of quarterbacks in a draft that could see five or even six selected in the first round.

They arrived in California feeling good about Williams the player and eager to learn more about the person. After spending parts of three days together, it’s safe to say the Bears have made a large step toward making Williams the No. 1 pick on April 25.

First they met with Williams and a collection of USC teammates who also participated in Wednesday morning’s pro day on Monday night at the Bird Streets Club, a trendy private spot in West Hollywood. The Bears got to spend time with Williams and also see how he fit in with teammates.

They’ve gotten strong reviews in that area for months as they sought input from teammates, coaches and staff members past and present. What’s he like? How does he fit in? Is he authentic? The responses have been overwhelmingly positive.

On Tuesday, the team spent nearly half the day on campus with Williams at the football facility: talking ball, doing work on the whiteboard and watching film. Williams’ attention to detail struck the Bears. He was the one taking notes — not team officials — as they studied the game and sought insight into Williams’ acumen and how he processes and learns.

“It was great,” Williams said of the extended time with the Bears after only a quick 20-minute interview at the scouting combine last month. “Just building a relationship. They’re trying to see if I’m the right fit to be the first pick as a quarterback and possibly the face of the franchise. They’re trying to figure out if this is the guy they should invest all the time, energy and effort and money into, which is obviously important. It was great.”

Suffice to say the Bears also thought it went well.

The focus shifted to pro day Wednesday morning, and the Bears had nine representatives — 10 if you count new wide receiver Keenan Allen, who showed up to support Williams. General manager Ryan Poles, coach Matt Eberflus, assistant GM Ian Cunningham, offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, passing game coordinator Thomas Brown, quarterbacks coach Kerry Joseph, national scout Francis Saint Paul, area scout Reese Hicks and offensive assistant Robbie Picazo were present.

Poles and Eberflus stood about 20 yards directly behind Williams during a showing of about 50 throws on scripted plays. A lot of quarterbacks would look nifty in this setting, throwing “on air” with no defenders. But the ball comes out of Williams’ hand so smoothly, it’s just a flick of the wrist on some passes. Footwork is always being drilled, but he’s clean and sound mechanically.

“I think it went well,” Williams said. “I missed a few throws deep.”

It was another step in the process for Poles and his staff as they do more than check boxes, really diving into every nuanced angle of a decision that — if they are correct — could be transformative for the franchise. They’re not there yet, but this surely moved them closer to turning in Williams’ name when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell puts the Bears on the clock.

There is remaining business. The team needs to host Williams on a top-30 visit to Halas Hall and put him through a medical examination. They don’t expect any surprises — the only injury issue he had in college was a minor hamstring injury. That visit probably won’t happen until the first or second week of April.

It’s an exciting time inside Halas Hall. There’s a strong belief the team has made meaningful improvement in a lot of areas of the roster, laying a foundation for success. The missing piece, and it’s maybe the oldest sports story in Chicago, is the quarterback.

The Bears are woefully behind the rest of the league when you examine passing statistics. Jay Cutler is their all-time leader with 23,443 yards. Mitch Trubisky is fifth on that list. They have yet to have a quarterback throw for 4,000 yards or 30 touchdowns in a season. In a passing league, it’s impossible to be a perennial contender — or even a semi-consistent contender — without an elite quarterback.

For a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2010 season and hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since 2005-06, a span of nearly two decades, the magnitude of this decision cannot be overstated.

Bears President/CEO Kevin Warren hasn’t officially been on the job 12 months yet. He’s making major changes in the hierarchy of the business operations. The team is either seriously exploring a domed stadium it wouldn’t own in Chicago or playing high-stakes poker with Arlington Heights about a future home.

Poles, who made the decision to retain Eberflus, has been busy this offseason, signing running back D’Andre Swift in free agency, trading for Allen and paying cornerback Jaylon Johnson. None of it will affect the next five seasons, maybe longer, as much as how the team’s new quarterback fares.

“He’s done it early in his career, two different big-time programs,” said Lincoln Riley, who coached Williams at Oklahoma and USC, when asked how Williams can find success where many other young QBs encounter failure. “He’s shown an ability to get somewhere, transition and have success quickly while adapting to a system, teammates, all of that.

“I think that is a recipe for early success, and relative to some of the situations you see top drafted quarterbacks in the past and what they’ve gone into, including some of my guys (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray), I’m not so sure this situation with the Bears isn’t the best.”

It sets up as a career-defining move for Poles, who in his third year has reached the point in the roster overhaul where a young team coming off a 7-10 season should be prepared to compete — provided it gets the needed upgrade at quarterback.

Williams capped his throwing session with a designed fake and fired deep to Brenden Rice. It looked like about a 65-yard play. Receivers took off their gloves. Williams embraced his teammates. He then looked to the stands and offered a salute to his father, Carl. Next he thanked some of the NFL personnel present, including Poles.

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Some questions remain — all fair — and some can’t be answered until Williams is put into pressure situations as a professional. Will he thrive or wilt? You can only guess right now.

Williams is a higher-profile prospect than Patrick Mahomes was when coming out of Texas Tech in 2017. He’s cleaner mechanically and wasn’t as prone to head-scratching decisions. Remember, there were lots of questions about the viability of an Air Raid quarterback making it in the NFL.

“It’s almost like he’s where Mahomes was after two years in the league,” a national scout said in the fall.

Of course, drawing comparisons from Mahomes to any prospect is dangerous and largely unfair to both parties.

The Bears can’t have a lot of questions remaining. They set out to get answers to most of them when they planned activities with Williams over the last three days. They leave — with the next stop Friday’s Michigan pro day in Ann Arbor — feeling better about Williams than when they arrived.

And he leaves knowing he’s probably one step closer to achieving his goal of being the top pick.

“I’m extremely excited,” Williams said. “It’s something I’ve been waiting for, dreaming for, to be able to reach the goals I want to reach at that level. I’m working toward it.”