From pro day to private dinner, what’s ahead for Caleb Williams and the Bears after their combine icebreaker

CHICAGO — The icebreaker between the Chicago Bears and USC quarterback Caleb Williams came last week inside a suite at Lucas Oil Stadium during a time-limited interview at the NFL scouting combine.

The conversation was necessarily brief and, according to Williams, “more about ball” than anything else.

“It was more about them getting to know me, getting to test my mental (capacity), what I know, the base things for what it takes to be a quarterback in the NFL,” Williams said.

As for whether the likely No. 1 pick in this year’s draft left the suite with confidence in the Bears’ ability to develop him into an NFL star …

“In 10 minutes, it’s difficult to figure out if they’re going to be able to develop you,” Williams said with a smile. “I enjoyed the meeting. It was a good meeting. But in 10 minutes or so? It’s pretty difficult.”

In other words, the getting-to-know-you process has just begun with much more legwork ahead as Williams and the Bears assess their fit for one another.

Within days of last season ending, general manager Ryan Poles made it clear his exploration of drafting a new quarterback would include a detailed, well-thought-out process for assessing the makeup and wiring of the prospects he was interested in.

Poles knows, especially in a city like Chicago, talent will carry a player only so far if that player isn’t also equipped with mental toughness, thick skin and an ability to ride the NFL’s QB1 roller coaster with a steady heart rate.

“It’s not just the film,” Poles said in January. “Like, I need the person. There’s a whole process here that we have to figure out. … I have a lot of confidence in our ability to see talent on the field. It’s the human being we have to figure out. Especially to be a quarterback in this city, you’ve got to have it right.”

The Bears’ homework on that front is well underway but far from finished. The next five weeks or so provide valuable opportunities for Poles, coach Matt Eberflus, offensive coordinator Shane Waldron and team President/CEO Kevin Warren to further their assessment of Williams’ equanimity, drive and overall disposition.

The Bears will send a contingent to USC’s pro day on March 20 in Los Angeles while pushing to schedule an all-day “top-30” visit to Halas Hall shortly after that. A private workout and dinner with Williams should be in the mix as well.

Each encounter is likely to give the Bears a clearer picture of who Williams is and how he fits their vision.

Momentum seems to be building toward a late April marriage between Williams and the Bears, just minutes after the NFL draft begins. But there are still boxes to be checked and in-person meetings that figure to be informative.

Stage presence

While Williams’ on-field performance at his pro day likely won’t change how evaluators view him as a player, little things in that setting can prove illuminating.

One offensive coordinator whose team was immersed in evaluating the 2023 quarterback class noted that the pro day venue is often optimal for assessing “competitiveness” and “presence” in a quarterback.

“It’s observing communication with the guys they’re throwing with,” the coach said. “It’s communication with their teammates who aren’t even throwing. It’s how they communicate with the person who is coaching them during that session.”

That pro day is, by and large, another stage for the prospect in a pressure-packed audition in front of dozens of NFL coaches, executives and talent evaluators. Because of the dynamics, a player can sometimes fall into a trap of trying too hard, coming across as artificial with how much he is pushing to lead and command the session.

“Some guys are fake and you can just feel it,” the coach said. “They’re trying to act a certain way and they’re faking it over the top.

Bryce Young last year was as natural as you’ll ever find in that setting. At the same time, he was also very quiet and reserved. So you’re asking each other, ‘Will people follow this guy the way you need them to?’ (C.J.) Stroud was just like ‘in it.’ It was like you were on the basketball court with the guy and he was your point guard.”

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager and Sirius XM analyst Mark Dominik sees the pro day and a private workout session as tremendous opportunities to feel a quarterback’s confidence and poise.

“If a bad ball comes out or a receiver drops the ball, how does the quarterback handle that?” he said. “How does he react to that situation? It’s all about that reaction ability.”

The pro day highlights that will run on a loop on ESPN and NFL Network for a week or so will mean far less to the NFL folks in attendance than the feelings they get from watching the player manage the excitement and pressure of the day.

Said Dominik: “You’re really intently watching the swagger of a guy or the confidence of a guy as he goes through the process of that day. That’s an important part. It’s just seeing how much can he get locked in instead of worrying about everything else that’s around him.

“How do you respond and react when you’ve got hundreds of eyes on you at that one moment, knowing that one day there are going to be millions of eyes on you at one moment?”

Energy plan

As for the more intimate settings in which Williams and the Bears can get to know each other over the next month-plus, a private dinner may provide an opportunity for Poles and Eberflus — and whoever else is invited — to get a firsthand feel for the quarterback’s energy, self-assurance, maturity and comfort in his own skin.

And when Williams gets his opportunity to spend the day at Halas Hall, the readout from that experience should advance the Bears’ scouting report yet again.

Some teams try to be more film- and whiteboard-heavy during those visits, intensely testing a quarterback’s recall and overall acumen for the position. Others dial in on establishing a connection with the player while closely observing how he interacts with everyone in the building — from the folks in the lobby and cafeteria to other players or prospects who happen to be around to the coaching staff and front office.

One NFC quarterbacks coach said his priority has been to feel out a quarterback’s “coachability and relatability to the guys.”

“That’s a big deal for me,” the coach said. “Can this guy connect in our locker room? At every step in the (pre-draft) process, you’re doing the reconnaissance to figure out who you want to pick. But you should also be building a profile to start the planning of ‘OK, this is how we’ll need to coach this guy. What are the things that are going to be necessary to lift this guy to where we’ll need him to be?’

“Then, I also like to get the feeling of ‘Who do I want to coach the most?’ You look at these different skill sets and these profiles and the personalities of the different (quarterbacks) and then you ask: ‘Who is it I want to coach the most? Who do I want to interact with every day?’ That, in my opinion, should drive a lot of this.”

Stress test

Dominik also emphasizes the value of putting stress on a player during his visit. While reluctant to share specific methodologies, he noted that teams historically find creative tools and approaches to measure players’ composure and problem-solving skills.

“There are absolutely some unique ways to challenge a young guy in your facility, outside your facility, in the surroundings that you’re putting him in,” Dominik said. “There are some really easy ways to get a better sense of who the young man is and what he can become by putting him into a difficult setting or a frustrating setting and seeing how he reacts to that.”

With the meet-and-greet in Indianapolis in the rearview mirror, it’s now up to Poles to enact the rest of the Bears’ plan for getting to know Williams better.

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