Is Caleb Williams in the Best Situation of Any Rookie Quarterback Drafted No. 1 Overall in NFL History?

By Scott Kacsmar

The 2024 NFL odds are out for Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Chicago Bears quarterback Caleb Williams, the No.1 overall pick, is the leader with +170 odds at FanDuel.

Williams is the latest challenger to what feels like an impossible task in football: Give the Chicago Bears a franchise quarterback. They haven’t had a legitimate one since Sid Luckman, and he retired in 1950. Chuck Berry hadn’t even pioneered rock and roll music yet.

But the Bears have also had few opportunities to land a great passer over the years. Sure, they infamously choked in 2017 when they used the No. 2 pick on one-year-wonder Mitch Trubisky while gunslinger Patrick Mahomes was available.

Overall, those opportunities rarely present themselves to teams. But with a huge helping hand from the Carolina Panthers the last two seasons, the Bears landed the No. 1 pick in 2024 and made the no-brainer decision to draft Williams.

They weren’t finished either. The Bears used the No.9 pick on Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze, and this was after they traded a mid-round pick for Keenan Allen from the Chargers in March.

It sure seems like Chicago is giving its rookie quarterback a great starting point the likes of which you normally do not see for a No. 1 overall pick. But is it the best situation of any rookie quarterback drafted No. 1 overall in NFL history?

That’s what we wanted to figure out. Williams is the 28th quarterback drafted No. 1 overall in the NFL in the Super Bowl era (1966-present). That total excludes any supplemental draft picks such as Steve Young and Bernie Kosar.

Asking if Williams has it better than any other rookie quarterback requires foresight and some hindsight. The latter won’t be learned until the 2024 NFL season is underway, but we can make good assumptions about what he has to work with this year now that the draft is completed.

Note: For this study, we are ignoring draft-day trades and treating John Elway (1983) as a Denver Bronco and Eli Manning (2004) as a New York Giant from Day 1.

The Chicago Bears Are Not Your Typical Team to Use a No. 1 Pick

Traditionally, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft goes to the team with the worst record in the previous season. But thanks to an aggressive trade by the Carolina Panthers in 2023, we have witnessed back-to-back years where a team coming off a 7-10 record used the No. 1 pick on what they hope is their franchise quarterback.

The 2022 Bears earned the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL draft with a 3-14 record. But the Panthers (7-10) wanted that pick to draft Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, so a blockbuster trade was made, which sent wide receiver D.J. Moore to the Bears as well as a first-round pick (among other valuable picks) in 2024.

But as fate would have it, Young bombed as a rookie, and the Panthers earned the No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft by going a league-worst 2-15. Meanwhile, the Bears finished 7-10 but decided enough was enough with Justin Fields after giving him a final chance when they could have drafted Young or C.J. Stroud a year ago. But with the No. 1 pick in 2024, the Bears knew they were taking Caleb Williams, so they shipped Fields to Pittsburgh.

So, here we are with Williams going No. 1 to a team coming off a 7-10 season. How rare is that? Of the 28 quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall in our study, 22 of them went to a team coming off a season where it won no better than 25% of it games – think a 4-12 record or worse.

Tim Couch (1999 Browns) and David Carr (2002 Texans) were drafted to expansion teams, so they had no prior year history. The Browns (2.0) returned to the league in 1999 and the Texans became the 32nd team in 2002.

But that leaves just three other quarterbacks besides Williams that joined a team that actually won at least 40% of its games:

Jeff George is the only No. 1 overall quarterback to join a .500 team in 1990 when the Colts traded up after their 8-8 season to land George with the top pick. However, he never lived up to the expectations, and the Colts traded him to Atlanta in 1994 where he played better, but he also never shook off the reputation of being a bad teammate.

Similarly, the 7-9 Rams aggressively traded up for the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft to take quarterback Jared Goff. Once Sean McVay took over as head coach in 2017, Goff perked up and even got to a Super Bowl in 2018. He was eventually traded to Detroit in the Matthew Stafford deal in 2021.

Then we have the examples in the last two years with Bryce Young and Williams for 7-10 teams that made a huge trade with each other to set this up. But the Panthers regressed badly last year, new head coach Frank Reich was fired early in the season, and Young did not deliver in his rookie year. The 2023 Panthers are the first team in modern NFL history to not take a single snap with a fourth-quarter lead in any game.

The teams that drafted George, Goff, and Young all produced a worst record in their rookie year, so going 7-10 is not exactly a predictor of good things to come for the 2024 Bears. But given where a No. 1 quarterback usually lands, including 15 teams with 0-to-2 wins, this at least puts Williams in a better starting position than most.

Summary: Williams is going to a better team, record wise, than 85% of other No. 1 overall quarterbacks.

Caleb Williams and the Hope for an Above-Average Defense in Chicago

What about something more tangible than a team record? Sometimes the difference between a 7-10 team and a 4-13 team is one team got lucky three more times.

What about the defense? We wanted something quick and still important that we can easily find for 1970 just as we would the 2023 season when more advanced metrics exist. So, we compromised and used the team’s ranking in points allowed. Few things still correlate better to winning than points allowed.

The following table shows the 28 quarterbacks drafted No. 1 since 1966. The first three columns after their identity is their team’s record, win percentage, and defensive points allowed rank in the previous season before they were drafted (Y N-1). The next three columns show the same three stats for how the team did during the quarterback’s rookie season. The last two columns show what the quarterback’s record as a starter was in their rookie season and that winning percentage. This way you get a sense of how much each quarterback played as a rookie.

Note: The number of teams in the NFL has changed over time. A league with 32 teams is obviously different than one with 26 teams. But the only adjustment we made here was that every team’s defensive ranking comparison would be for an even number of teams in the league (26 vs. 26, 30 vs. 30, 32 vs. 32, etc.). That means the 1969 Steelers, a year before the NFL-AFL merger were ranked 16th out of 16 NFL teams in points allowed. We represented them as last (26th) in a 26-team league for the sake of comparison.

The Bears ranked 20th in points allowed in 2023. Only give quarterbacks on this list joined a team with a higher ranking than that, so Williams is again in better company than the vast majority of quarterbacks.

But we also see that value of the teams that traded up as George (11th), Goff (13th), and Young (19th) all joined teams that ranked in the top 20 defensively. Most of these quarterbacks went to defenses in the bottom quarter of the league.

We are not yet overly concerned with how these teams fared in their quarterback’s rookie season, but it is worth noting that only three teams avoided a losing record:

  • The 2003 Bengals finished 8-8 despite Carson Palmer being the only quarterback on this list to sit for his entire rookie season while Jon Kitna played.
  • John Elway’s 1983 Broncos made the playoffs with a 9-7 record, though they were only 4-6 when Elway started and 5-1 when he did not start.
  • Andrew Luck dragged the Colts to an 11-5 record in 2012 thanks to 7 game-winning drives, a rookie record.

In fact, Luck is the only No. 1 overall quarterback to win more than 7 starts as a rookie. So, there’s a bar for Williams to try reaching with an 8-9 record or better in 2024.

We mentioned Palmer did not start or even play in a single game in his rookie season. The only other quarterbacks on this list with fewer than 7 rookie starts were Vinny Testaverde (4), Michael Vick (2), and JaMarcus Russell (1).

But the other number to watch here for Williams this year is where the Bears finish in points allowed. Let’s assume they finish 20th for the second year in a row. That would still rank better than all but six of these rookie quarterbacks.

Elway had the only top 10 scoring defense with a No. 9 ranking in Denver. Drew Bledsoe (No. 11 with Bill Parcells coaching the Patriots), Sam Bradford (No. 12 with the Rams), Steve Bartkowski (No. 15 in Atlanta), Terry Bradshaw (No. 16 in Pittsburgh), and Eli Manning (No. 17 for the Giants) are the only ones that would be higher than a 20th-ranked Chicago finish.

But the Bears are going to have higher expectations than that after extending Montez Sweat to a long-term deal, re-signing corner Jaylon Johnson so that he didn’t hit free agency, and coach Matt Eberflus is supposed to be a defensive guru. He needs results this year if he’s going to keep his job for 2025.

Summary: Based on last year’s performance, Caleb Williams has a better defense than over 78% of these quarterbacks. Even if the Bears just improved from 20th to 15th on defense in 2024, Williams would again have a better defense than 85% of these quarterbacks.

Coaching and the Offensive Line

We led with defense in the previous section as that is an overlooked aspect of a quarterback’s supporting cast. It is easier to win games and play risk-averse football if you don’t need to score many points to win. Wiliams should know this all too well after losing many shootouts at USC with a terrible defense.

But now we are looking at the head coach, the offensive coordinator, and any notable offensive linemen with First-Team All-Pro or Pro Bowl honors on their resumes for these 28 quarterbacks.

The following table should be self-explanatory, but there is a handy color key at the bottom that shows what the color patterns mean. That includes things like differentiating between coaches who ended up in the Hall of Fame or reached a Super Bowl, and which offensive coordinators also served as NFL head coaches and if that went well or not. For the linemen, it relates to whether they earned Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors before or after the quarterback was drafted.

Starting with the head coaches, three of these 28 guys are in the Hall of Fame (Chuck Noll, Bill Parcells, and Jimmy Johnson), and Tom Coughlin will likely get there one day. But there are definitely some busts in Urban Meyer, Lane Kiffin, and Chris Palmer.

Admittedly, this is the worst argument for Williams as Matt Eberflus has not impressed so far. He is 10-24 (.294) in two seasons and a big reason for that is an abysmal 2-16 (.111) record in close games with a comeback opportunity. His defenses look closer to former Bears coach Marc Trestman than a Chicago coach like Mike Ditka or Lovie Smith.

Eberflus is not the worst coach on this list, but he is closer to the bottom than the top right now. But if Williams is the real deal at quarterback, then maybe his fortune will change.

The good news is the Bears should have made one of the better offensive coordinator signings this year in Shane Waldron, who called the shots in Seattle since 2021 and has worked for Bill Belichick and Sean McVay in the past. If things go well in Chicago, Waldron has future head coach potential in the NFL.

When it comes to the offensive coordinators in this table, 11 of 28 became NFL head coaches. We’ll see how Brian Callahan fares in Tennessee this year, but so far, it’s been mostly duds as the only good coaches were Mike McCarthy and Bruce Arians.

If Waldron can be successful at a second stop as a coordinator in the NFL, then that would bump up Williams’ standing among his No. 1 peers on this list when it comes to the coaching edge.

As for the offensive line, Williams is one of the 7 entries that have no Pro Bowlers or All-Pro linemen. Keep in mind this is a career metric, so recent picks are at a disadvantage. It’s probably not a coincidence that 3-of-4 quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall since 2020 have not had any linemen make a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team.

This could obviously change in the future as it did for others on this list. The Bears used the No. 10 pick in the 2023 draft on right tackle Darnell Wright. If he makes a Pro Bowl, even if it takes him until 2027 or later to do it, he will retroactively appear on this list. So, just keep that in mind that this list is subject to change.

But it is true that Williams is not going to a loaded line as we see it right now.

Jim Plunkett joined a 1971 Patriots team that had three Pro Bowl linemen, though that one is a little misleading since they earned most of those accolades in the 1960s AFL, which was an 8-team league at most.

However, Troy Aikman and Eli Manning both played as rookies with three linemen who became Pro Bowlers later in their careers. Guys they were able to win multiple Super Bowls with.

Summary: Williams is trailing most of these quarterbacks when it comes to having advantages at head coach, offensive coordinator, and offensive linemen. However, this could improve quickly if he elevates Eberflus’ status, if Waldron continues to excel at coordinator, and if someone like second-year tackle and top 10 pick Darnell Wright can develop into a Pro Bowl tackle.

Does Caleb Williams Have the Best Skill Players of Any No. 1 Overall Pick?

Finally, it’s the part most people probably thought of first. We are looking at the skill players each quarterback had their rookie season, and that’s where Williams is expected to have his greatest advantage.

We looked at each team’s top three wide receivers, top running back, and top tight end. The determination of these players was a little complicated as it was a mixture of preseason expectations and actual season outcomes. We tried to account for injuries the best we could. For example, Michael Irvin should have been Troy Aikman’s No. 1 wide receiver in 1989, but he only played 6 games due to injury and finished third on the team in receiving yards. But we still list Irvin as WR1.

But in the case of Bryce Young, we used Miles Sanders as the Pro Bowl running back from Philadelphia since that was the expectation going into the year. Instead, Sanders bombed behind that line and was demoted behind Chuba Hubbard, who outplayed him and led the team in rushing.

The table has a color key that again refers to whether the player was a Pro Bowler before or after the quarterback was drafted. But this one also refers to players who produced a 1,000-yard season (rushing or receiving) before or after the quarterback was drafted. Rookies are denoted by “RK” in parenthesis.

This table is so fascinating that I could easily write 5,000 words just about its contents.

  • Notice that all but five quarterbacks had a Pro Bowl/1,000-yard running back with them as rookies.
  • Stanley Morgan and Eric Dickerson were close to the end of their careers with the 1990 Colts when George was drafted.
  • As an expansion team, the Texans really could not give David Carr a chance in 2002 with a busted offensive line and no real weapons.

But perhaps the main takeaway is that windows matter for talent, and it’s not just the name on the jersey, but how close they are to their prime.

Only three quarterbacks on this list have four players highlighted but watch what happens when we look at the window this season captured for each:

Steve Bartkowski (1975 Falcons): By the time Wallace Francis had a 1,000-yard season in 1979, 2-time Pro Bowl tight end Jim Mitchell was 32 and about to retire, and fullback Dan Hampton was already done with his career following the 1976 season.

Michael Vick (2001 Falcons): An even better example, and this is ignoring that Vick only started 2 games as a rookie and didn’t even play with some of these players. But this was Atlanta trying to run back the 1998 Super Bowl team in 2001. The Falcons lost running back Jamal Anderson to a season-ending injury after 3 games. Their wide receivers were very good here, but they were all 32-to-36 years old and on their last legs. While Alge Crumpler grew to be a Pro Bowl tight end for Vick, he was just a rookie with 25 catches in 2001.

Joe Burrow (2020 Bengals): Tyler Boyd was coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Tee Higgins is obviously talented and would be the No. 1 on a lot of teams right now, but he was only a rookie in 2020, the same draft class as Burrow. A.J. Green is probably the best WR3 on this table, but he was 32 and coming off a year away from football due to injuries in 2018-19. He was not the same weapon anymore. Joe Mixon was coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard rushing season, but injury ended his 2020 season after 6 games. A torn ACL also obviously ended Burrow’s season.

This is why the 2024 Bears have a real shot to field the best set of skill players on this table. The windows are close enough to the peaks for these players:

  • D.J. Moore is still only 27 and had a career-high 1,364 yards and 8 touchdowns last year for the Bears.
  • Keenan Allen is getting up there at 32, but he still had 108 catches and 1,243 yards for the Chargers last season.
  • Rome Odunze was the No. 2 or No. 3 wide receiver prospect in this year’s draft according to most experts, and he could get favorable coverage every week when he’s on the field with Moore and Allen.
  • Tight end Cole Kmet just had a career-high 73 catches and 719 yards in his fourth season with the Bears. His numbers were close to what Jake Ferguson (Cowboys) made the Pro Bowl with.
  • D’Andre Swift rushed for a career-high 1,049 yards last season in Philadelphia, but let’s hope he works out better with his new team than Miles Sanders did in Carolina last year. Khalil Herbert is a quality back too.

Unless Odunze is the second coming of Kevin White, Chicago’s 2015 first-round bust, the 2024 Bears could have three wide receivers who play like No. 1 wide receivers.

Is D.J. Moore the best WR1 on the list? Obviously not when the list includes Michael Irvin, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Calvin Johnson, and Larry Fitzgerald. But Moore is coming off a career year and is still in his prime, which none of those five can say in the year listed above.

Is Keenan Allen the best WR2 on the list? Yeah, I’d say he is, especially when you consider Terance Mathis and Vincent Jackson were so close to retiring, Rick Upchurch was really a Pro Bowl return specialist instead of a Pro Bowl wideout for the Broncos, and Tee Higgins averages 12 fewer yards per game than Allen.

If Odunze comes even close to his draft projection, he will be one of the best WR3 on this list and could challenge Morgan and Green for the best NFL career in that column.

Put it all together and the 2024 Bears give Williams the best wide receiver trio in the table. None of the tight ends were great enough to outweigh that edge. For that matter, Kmet had a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2023 on par with some of the Pro Bowl seasons these players had. For instance, Ken Dilger made the Pro Bowl for the 2001 Colts in a season where he only had 32 catches, 343 yards, and 1 touchdown in 16 games with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. How did that qualify? Kmet is a top 8 tight end on this table.

Swift may not move the needle much at running back but that’s okay. We’ll take the top wide receiver trio and top 8 tight end for Williams.

The question is which collective skill group rivals what Williams has in Chicago on this list? Some might say Peyton Manning on the 1998 Colts because Marvin Harrison and Marshall Faulk made the Hall of Fame, but Harrison got a lot better in 1999 as Manning got better, and Faulk raised his game when he was traded to St. Louis in 1999. The secondary wideouts were nothing special at all that year for the Colts.

Believe it or not, Cam Newton and the 2011 Panthers probably had the best skill group for No. 1 overall quarterbacks before Williams and the Bears. It may be cheating a little, but what put Carolina over the top were some players not in the table. Not only did they have Jonathan Stewart at running back, but DeAngelo Williams was still there as a great backfield partner. Not only was Greg Olsen the new tight end from Chicago, but they also had a multiple-time Pro Bowler in Jeremy Shockey.

While Brandon LaFell was never anything special as a WR2, Steve Smith was 32 and still dominant with 1,394 yards that season. Newton had a great WR1, a tight end who would grow into one of the best in the league, and good depth at running back and tight end. The 2010 Panthers are a good example of how one historically terrible rookie quarterback (Jimmy Clausen) can make a whole offense look much worse than it actually was.

Summary: Before this Chicago experiment in 2024, the 2011 Panthers with Cam Newton would have been my pick for the best skill players for a No. 1 overall quarterback. But with Williams having the best wide receiver trio, a top 8 tight end, and a solid running back, he gets the nod for the best skill players. Perhaps decisively so if Odunze meets the hype quickly.

Conclusion: Caleb Williams Is in the Best Situation for a No. 1 Overall Pick at Quarterback

We started talking about how the Panthers made this possible for Chicago with the trade for the No. 1 pick in 2023. Little did we expect after doing all the research that the 2011 Panthers with Cam Newton may very well have been the best setup for a quarterback drafted No. 1 in the Super Bowl era.

He had a dominant WR1, two quality backs, two quality tight ends, and a couple of proven Pro Bowl linemen in Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. All of this was known going into the season too.

The problem was a defense that was not up to the task. The Panthers went from 26th in points allowed in 2010 to 27th a year later with Ron Rivera taking over as head coach in the lockout year that was heavier on offense with a shortened offseason.

That’s why when you put the full picture together, as long as the Bears field a competent defense in 2024 and Caleb doesn’t look like he’s back at USC trying to win 48-45 games, then he has the best situation to begin his career for any quarterback drafted No. 1.

He’s also a good bet for Offensive Rookie of the Year given these advantages. Chalk has delivered for that award. The last favorites with better than +200 odds both won the award with Kyler Murray in 2019 (+150) and Saquon Barkley in 2018 (+155). The last time a favorite with odds like this was upset was Ezekiel Elliott (-140) in 2016. His quarterback, Dak Prescott (+900), won instead.

We promise you, Odunze (+2500 at FanDuel) is not going to win this award over his quarterback.

Trusting something positive to come out of the Chicago offense has been a fool’s errand for decades. But maybe they got it right this time. They drafted the top quarterback prospect, and they stocked up on toys for him right away.

In the words of Baldrick, it sounds like a cunning plan.

Related Articles:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *