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All eyes on the Bears ahead of draft loaded with QB talent

Caleb Williams Caleb Williams - The Canadian Press

Indianapolis –– No decision in all of sports carries as much gravity as the moment a National Football League team drafts a quarterback in the first round.

And when that quarterback is believed to have generational talent, well, the anticipation and expectation become that much greater.

That brings us to this year’s star-studded NFL draft class, which features three quarterbacks who are expected to be the first three names called when the league begins its annual draft this April in Detroit.

The headliner is USC’s Caleb Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner who has thrown 72 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions over the past two seasons, floating in the pocket in a manner that makes it hard not to see shades of Patrick Mahomes.

Two other quarterbacks remain in the conversation – LSU’s Jayden Daniels is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, a true dual-threat pivot coming off a season in which he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and threw 40 touchdown passes, and North Carolina’s Drake Maye, a pocket passer who has thrown for nearly 8,000 yards over the past two seasons. 

For more than a year it’s felt like Williams would be difficult to move out of the top spot, and he is among those convinced his will be the first name called in April.

“That's not a thought in my mind…that I'm not going to be No. 1,” Williams said during his Friday morning availability. “I think I put in all the hard work, all of the time, effort, energy… I don't think of a Plan B. That's kind of how I do things in my life. I don't think of a Plan B. Stay on Plan A.”

Williams is so sure of himself that he declined to participate in the NFL’s medical testing, an unusual and perhaps unprecedented decision, opting only to share such information with the teams that bring him in for pre-draft visits.

Williams isn’t shy about seeing himself as special, even among an elite group of peers.

“I don’t compare myself to other guys,” he said. “I tend to create history and rewrite history.”

It has been reported that Williams will meet with eight teams this week – the Bears, Commanders, Raiders, Vikings, Falcons, Patriots, Jets and Giants. When asked about the Bears specifically, he remarked about the unique situation of a team coming off a 7-10 season holding the first pick, making it all that more appealing a place to land.

None of the top three quarterbacks will throw this week at the combine, saving that for their respective pro days and leaving the door open for players such as Oregon’s Bo Nix or Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., who are also projected as first-round talents, to try and close the gap.

For teams such as the Commanders and Patriots, selecting second and third in the draft, the timing couldn’t be better.

Both teams are ready to start over at quarterback and the prospect of landing an elite talent with unlimited upside is the dream in today’s NFL.

That’s the formula used by the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals in recent years, and this past year by the Houston Texans, whose fortunes changed the moment they took C.J. Stroud with the second-overall pick at last year’s draft.

Twenty years ago, the NFL was dotted with quarterbacks who came from all different places – first-round picks, mid-round picks, late-round picks, guys who were never drafted, and even guys who’d played in Canada or the arena league.

In a different era, Brock Purdy, wouldn’t be such an anomaly.

These days, however, the formula for success starts with hitting on a quarterback taken high in the draft, becoming quickly competitive and then signing that player to a top-of-the-market contract. That’s why all eyes are on the Bears and the unique circumstance facing the franchise as the draft approaches.

Chicago holds the first-overall pick, allowing them to have their choice of Williams, Daniels or Maye. But doing so would mean trading away current starter Justin Fields, whom the Bears selected with the 11th-overall pick just three years ago.

Fields hasn’t been terrible during his time in the NFL. Like his team, he’s had good moments and bad, with the close of the 2023 season representing an upswing for both.

Should the Bears try to build on that by sticking with Fields, or do they reset the quarterback position and start over in April?

Like any significant personnel decision in the NFL, there are more than a few things to consider.

For one, the Fields selection predates the arrival of Bears GM Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus. At the very least, that dynamic makes it easier for them to move on, since Fields was never their idea in the first place.

Then there are the economics of starting over at quarterback versus sticking with Fields.

Fields is a relative bargain at roughly $6 million for next season, but would balloon to more than $20 million for a fifth year in 2025 and then need a contract extension at something significantly higher after that.

With free agency slated to begin March 13, the clock is ticking.

The prevailing sense is that the Bears will trade Fields and opt to draft a quarterback, gambling that the learning curve of those available will be short enough and the upside big enough to make the move too tempting to pass up.

Fields may have improved in each of his three seasons, but if the Bears aren’t convinced that he’s on the trajectory to becoming elite, it would be hard to talk themselves into several more seasons of Fields at a higher cost than they’d be paying Williams for the next four years.

Of course, there are no sure things when it comes to drafting quarterbacks, as recent history can remind us.

A year ago, Carolina took Bryce Young over Stroud, which looks like the wrong decision a year later. In 2021, three quarterbacks went with the top three picks – Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance. Three years later, only Lawrence is a bona fide NFL starter.

In 2017, the Bears traded four draft picks to San Francisco to move up to the second overall spot, making Mitch Trubisky the first quarterback taken that year, passing on Mahomes, who was the second.

It’s hard to think a team that has had an incredibly low bar for quarterback play throughout its history would let another potential generational talent slip through its fingers – even if there are no guarantees.