How Bears draft pick QB Caleb Williams is adapting to NFL

Caleb Williams has had some growing pains against a solid Bears defense, but he's also made some plays that belied his rookie status. Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

LAKE FOREST, Ill. - The text notifications began to pop up on the phone of Chicago Bears quarterbacks coach Kerry Joseph around 11 p.m. Hours after the Bears wrapped up their first day of rookie minicamp on May 10, Caleb Williams peppered his coach with questions as he began preparing for the next day's practice.

"He texts me, 'Hey, why are we doing this here? Why are we blocking it like that? Isn't that his guy to block?'" Joseph said. "He wants to know those answers.

"He's hungry for it, and you love to know that because now he becomes a coach on the field for you. Once he gets it and learns this whole system, he'll become a coach on the field."

The Bears traded former starter Justin Fields to the Pittsburgh Steelers on March 16, all but guaranteeing they would take Williams with the No. 1 pick on April 25. That gave the former USC Heisman winner a long runway to get familiar with the philosophy of new Bears offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who spent the past three seasons as the Seahawks OC.

And Williams took advantage.

"I would say the learning," coach Matt Eberflus said of the thing that most impressed him about Williams. "...Having a beginner's mindset to be able to learn, absorb, ask questions and just keep learning.

"That's what's been impressive to me. If he does that, he'll be just fine."

Williams' situation is atypical for a QB taken with the No. 1 pick. The Bears are coming off a 7-10 season, and they added Pro Bowlers in receiver Keenan Allen and running back D'Andre Swift. Since 1950, only eight QBs recorded double-digit wins in their rookie seasons, and only two of those -- Russell Wilson with Seattle in 2012 and Mac Jones with the New England Patriots in 2021 -- inherited a team with at least seven wins, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Bears also led the NFL in rushing defense last season, which means Williams will hold the reins of a team that could be ready for playoff contention.

"We'll be pacing this thing at a pretty fast pace, like we've done already," Eberflus said. "And I've seen the progress in him."

INSIDE THE JOHN McKay Center at USC's pro day in late March, Waldron set up shop to teach Williams various concepts that he would delve into further during Williams' first visit to Halas Hall in April.

During his own time, Williams and his private quarterbacks coach, Will Hewlett, were already getting up to speed on the fundamentals of Waldron's offense, from traditional drop techniques to the cadence.

Hewlett, who has been training Williams since the seventh grade, has a relationship with Waldron from their work in the QB Collective, a consortium of NFL and private quarterback coaches who host camps and training sessions for elite high school athletes. Hewlett sat down with Eberflus, Waldron and other Bears coaches at Williams' pro day to get a feel for what they wanted the quarterback to focus on in the weeks before he was drafted.

"The reason why it's so unique is that the perfect alignment has to happen where the team has complete confidence that they're going to pick 'Player X,'" Hewlett said. "Chicago was completely committed to drafting Caleb, so when you have that aligned, essentially you can get to work prior to that.

"As soon as we knew everyone was good with everything, we started moving that direction in terms of placing Bears' terminology, what their expectations are, what Coach Waldron's expectations are from a footwork and timing perspective in our training."

Hewlett called the trainer of Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith to get an understanding of the footwork elements he's worked on with Waldron. Throughout April, Hewlett sat in on Zoom meetings with Waldron, Joseph and Williams and took teaching points from those virtual sessions into his on-field training.

"It's nice to be able to call a thunder route a thunder route, as opposed to it being called something differently over there," Hewlett said.

Among the biggest changes for Williams was transitioning from the clap cadence used by most college quarterbacks to being back under center barking out words to time the snap of the ball.

"Understanding how the cadence works for that particular team -- those are the things that if you can go in knowing, it's so much easier," Hewlett said. "The learning curve is shorter."

ON BACK-TO-BACK days in minicamp, Williams was late on throws over the middle during 7-on-7 work, and it led to two interceptions and celebrations along the defensive sideline.

Practicing against an experienced defense while Bears coaches encouraged the 22-year-old quarterback to experiment and take chances came with the expectation of mistakes.

"I love 7-on-7, in which we know there's no defensive line, there's no threat of a run," Waldron said. "There's a lot of things that aren't totally realistic to the actual game, but it's a great chance for the quarterback to see what windows they can fit throws into it.

"It's a great chance to time things up with their feet, see different voids in a clean picture with the final goal of that being -- OK, let's bank these reps. What works? What doesn't work?"

Several Bears defenders said it's their responsibility to throw as much at Williams during the offseason to prepare him for any situation he'll encounter during the season. The disguises and pre-snap movement they showed Williams and the offense got the best of the rookie at times. But there were moments when the young quarterback showed the defense why he was selected No. 1 overall.

"You definitely see some things that you don't really expect a rookie to do," linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "You know, he moved us a couple times with his eyes. The first day it had me and [linebacker] Tremaine [Edmunds] hot about it, but he's impressive for sure."

THE OFFICIALS ON hand for Day 1 of mandatory minicamp on June 4 launched their flags a half dozen times during full-team drills. The false starts and errors in getting the ball snapped on time kept putting the Bears' offense behind the chains, but these frustrations created a teaching moment for the quarterback and his offensive line.

"One thing that we always try to tell him is voice louder, emphasize like that second 'hut' to make the defense go offsides and get a free play," left guard Teven Jenkins said. "Those plays we got last year. We got a free touchdown to DJ [Moore against Detroit], that was like a free play.

"Just communicating to him that those voice inflections are very important."

This is new territory for Williams, who has not used a verbal cadence since high school. Mastering double and triple counts, dummy counts and the silent count is a part of his NFL education, which has required him to adjust his pre-snap rhythm from looking toward the sideline to receive the play to hearing it in his helmet before communicating it to the rest of the offense.

"Just finding the green line," Williams said. "It's right in the middle of where we need it so everybody can be on the same page. That's the biggest thing, so that the center can hear me, the right tackle, left tackle, right guard, the back, left guard, wide receiver, everybody can hear me.

"It's just finding the balance between it all, not being too loud on certain plays and things like that, not being too low, so just working practice-wise, just working through it."

Williams' training will continue over the summer with plans to organize workouts for offensive and defensive players. His aim for the trip, which will happen in Florida or California, is to strengthen his chemistry on the field with his teammates and their bond off it.

Said Hewlett: "I would call him the most prepared, ready-to-be pro that I've ever worked with."

But preparation in the offseason doesn't always translate to success in the fall. The Bears were confident Fields was their franchise quarterback of the future, until he wasn't. Whether Williams can end generations of quarterback futility in Chicago remains to be seen, but safety Kevin Byard saw a resiliency after his young teammate struggled that might bode well for his future.

Byard told him to "keep fighting, keep going, watch the film, get better ... and he kind of just looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Of course I will.'

"And that was good to see."