What will (and should) the Bears do with the No. 1 pick? Here’s what 22 NFL team reps predict

INDIANAPOLIS — The buzz about what Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles will do with the No. 1 pick in April’s draft grew so loud at the NFL combine this week that he put his phone on “Do Not Disturb.”

But that didn’t mute the speculation over whether Poles will draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams with the top pick or trade it and build around incumbent starter Justin Fields.

“You need a franchise quarterback,” said an NFC player personnel executive who expects Poles to draft Williams. “This opportunity doesn’t come around every day.”

ESPN polled representatives of 22 NFL teams and asked two questions:

The combination of general managers, coaches, scouts, player personnel staff and other front office executives believes by a 18-4 margin that the Bears will select Williams with the first pick April 25.

For the second question, the tally was 17-5 against trading the pick and building around Fields. One NFC college scout believes the Bears will draft Williams, but he thinks they should bring Fields back for a fourth year.

“It’s not even a debate,” an AFC player personnel executive said. “Trade him to Atlanta for two third-rounders and keep it moving.”

Online sportsbook DraftKings has been offering odds on Fields’ next team since early February. The Falcons’ odds were as long as 6-1 on Feb. 13, but rumors began circulating early this week, at one point causing DraftKings to pull the market off the board, according to a DraftKings spokesperson. On Wednesday, DraftKings reopened the market with the Falcons as -425 odds-on favorites to land Fields.

“It seems inevitable at this point,” one NFC scout said of the likelihood the Bears will draft Williams.

Poles said Tuesday he wants to resolve the situation “as quickly as possible,” because he understands the uncertainty is uncomfortable for Fields.

“I wouldn’t want to be in that situation either,” Poles said. “So, we will gather the information — we will move as quickly as possible, [but] we are not going to be in a rush — and see what presents itself and what’s best for the organization.”

An informal poll of league evaluators in January predicted Fields would be worth a second- or third-round pick in a pre-draft trade.

One of the reasons many believe Chicago will move forward with a rookie quarterback is finances. Williams will be expected to sign a four-year rookie contract worth an estimated $38.5 million with a fifth-year option for 2028.

Fields is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and the Bears would need to decide whether to extend his contract or exercise his fifth-year option for the 2025 season, which is estimated to be $25.7 million.

“There’s always a risk [of a QB not panning out], but given the current setup, it’s a lower risk than other No. 1 QB selections,” an NFC pro scouting director said of Williams. “It’s the most cost-effective, strategic approach that they have.

“You have a rookie contract to give them four years to win with this current team.”

And as an NFC offensive coordinator said: “Caleb is cheaper and likely better.”

Williams isn’t the only highly regarded quarterback in this draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has LSU’s Jayden Daniels going No. 2 to the Washington Commanders and North Carolina’s Drake Maye going to the New England Patriots at No. 3.

One AFC personnel executive said if the Bears did trade the top pick, they would receive a “historic bounty. Somebody will offer them probably the most any team has ever gotten for the pick, because that’s how revered these quarterbacks will be in this draft.”

But the prospects are just part of the equation. The other part is Fields, who was drafted by the previous administration with the No. 11 pick in 2021. He’s shown improvement over three seasons, but he hasn’t been able to firmly grasp the role of a budding franchise quarterback.

“I see a reset taking place,” an NFC personnel director said. “It’s hard to have a conviction on a QB you didn’t draft.”

Williams, meanwhile, won the Heisman in 2022 and completed 68.6% of his passes for 3,633 yards in 12 games last season. He threw for 10,082 yards, 93 touchdowns and 14 interceptions over three years, including his freshman season at Oklahoma.

“You basically have to be certain [Fields] is the guy now to pass up on Caleb, which they don’t feel that way,” said an NFC pro scouting executive.

Williams didn’t throw at the combine, saying Friday he hopes his college tape will convince teams of his ability.

Several comparisons have been made between Williams and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Poles, who was a part of the front office that drafted Mahomes in 2017, acknowledged some similarities.

“The best thing he’s got going for him is Mahomes,” an AFC personnel executive said. “You’re going to hear that a hundred times — he’s the next Mahomes.

“Peyton Manning said it a year ago: ‘He’s great.’ The Boomer Esiasons, the Peyton Mannings, the gurus of the positions are coming out and saying how great he’s going to be. The groundswell of momentum this kid’s going to have in terms of perception, it’s going to be hard to say no to that.”

Poles opted against using the No. 1 pick last year, trading it to the Carolina Panthers for a package that included wide receiver DJ Moore and the Panthers’ No. 1 pick this year, which turned out to be the top pick overall.

The Panthers took quarterback Bryce Young with the first pick last year and, after he struggled during a 2-15 season, Carolina GM Scott Fitterer was fired. C.J. Stroud was taken with the No. 2 pick and guided the Houston Texans to the playoffs with one of the best rookie seasons for a quarterback in history.

“If they don’t take Caleb, they don’t want to keep their jobs,” said an AFC front office executive.

Can Williams duplicate Stroud’s impact? The stakes are huge for an organization that hasn’t had a franchise quarterback in generations.

“They better be sure [Williams is] as much of an upgrade as he’s made out to be,” an NFC assistant coach said. “If Fields goes somewhere else and starts winning, and the new guy struggles, that’s going to be a tough look.

“You don’t want to give up on the guy because of this so-called can’t-miss prospect, when we know the draft can be a crapshoot. You’re not guaranteed success because you have ‘No. 1 pick’ attached to your name.”