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Caleb Williams’ development, Bears’ success resting on one crucial group


Caleb Williams, the Chicago Bears’ 2024 No. 1 draft pick, is coming into the best situation a quarterback selected first overall has perhaps ever come into. 

The roster is a three-years-long curation by general manager Ryan Poles to finally set a quarterback, and therefore the team, up for sustained success. 

Most of the coverage has predictably gone to the arsenal of weapons with which Poles has armed Williams. 

It started as far back as last offseason with the acquisition of wide receiver D.J. Moore in a trade out of the No. 1 pick. This past offseason, Poles made a splash in March with a trade for veteran receiver Keenan Allen, forfeiting a fourth-round pick in the process. Still not content, with Chicago’s second first-round pick, Poles selected Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze, one of the best wideouts in this year’s draft class.

And yet, I’m here to tell you the biggest factor in Williams’ success, and the unit that is taking the most responsibility for it, is actually his offensive line.

***

I sit with Bears left guard Teven Jenkins in the equipment-riddled pool house of former NFL center AQ Shipley’s house. 

It’s June, just days after Chicago broke minicamp for the summer and Jenkins is back working in the sweltering Arizona heat, training with Shipley and two other NFL offensive linemen. 

Jenkins is here of his own volition, having reached out to Shipley after seeing one of Shipley’s “In the Trenches” segments on “The Pat McAfee Show.” Jenkins appreciated Shipley’s breakdown of his play. Shipley invited Jenkins to Arizona.

I, in turn, invited myself.

And here we are, surrounded by every machine a professional lineman could ever want underneath a custom-made sign that says “Don’t Be a P—sy” hanging on the wall, listening to everything from Five Finger Death Punch to Bad Bunny to the “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack blaring over the loudspeaker.

“He’s a rookie so he’s coming here with like, those like wide eyes, you know?” Jenkins tells me as we talk about Caleb Williams while sitting on opposite weight benches following their workout. “So, it’s like, we’re trying to understand what we can do to help him out. Like certain cadences, certain voice inflections, things that he needs to look for, all that stuff. Even the small stuff, like we see a nickel corner, starting to blitz — we’ll [call that out] to get his eyes over there. Like, maybe it’s alert hot somewhere else or something. Just having that older line—”

Jenkins pauses and gets wide eyes of his own as he looks at me.

“It’s crazy. I’m older now.”

Indeed, Jenkins is currently the longest-tenured starting lineman the Bears have. Entering just his fourth season in the league, Jenkins has been with Chicago for all of it — though never in one spot. He finally settled into the left guard position this past year, next to 2022 fifth-round pick Braxton Jones at left tackle. The guy starting next to Jenkins on the other side will either be Coleman Shelton, who was the Los Angeles Rams’ starting center last year, or Ryan Bates, previously with Buffalo, who Poles picked up in free agency this past offseason. 

It’s a true competition between the two, Jenkins tells me — echoing what his coaches have said throughout the Bears’ offseason training program. Whoever it is, he’ll be new to Chicago. Then there’s Nate Davis, a 2023 free agency pickup at right guard entering his second season in the Windy City and Bears 2023 first-round pick, Darnell Wright at right tackle going into his second year as a pro. 

That makes Jenkins the de facto leader from his guard post.

Helping out the quarterback is nothing new for offensive lines. Checks and identifications of things like defensive line formations and “mike points,” that is, snuffing out the acting ‘Mike’ linebacker on any given play, are what the offensive line will set their protection to — it dictates their landmarks for how they line up and what they do post-snap. Sometimes the quarterback does all that, especially the more experienced signal callers. 

Other times it’s the center, specifically, who helps the quarterback. But according to Jenkins, that responsibility is being shared throughout the line because, well, on an offense full of new, the line is where the experience lies.

“I feel more continuity this year,” Jenkins says. “There’s more explanation behind what we’re doing. Instead of like last year, [where] some things were gray in some areas. [Now], we’re really hammering out the small details and I feel like half the stuff is because we retained [offensive line coach] Chris Morgan.”

The offseason program was spent with the line figuring what it is exactly Williams is going to need from them on the field. Figuring out his play style is just as important for the five guys in front of Williams as it is for any one of the skill players he will be distributing the ball to. The more the line knows of Williams, and the more he knows of them, the easier they can make things for a guy entering his first professional season.

In addition to getting to know their new quarterback on the field, Williams has invited his protectors out around town with him, too. Williams hosted an outing to a Chicago Cubs baseball game for some of his linemen and other teammates. There have been a few outings to local drinking establishments, as well. There was one invite to play Top Golf, but the next day was a charity golf outing and in Jenkins’ “old” age, he tells me he couldn’t do two days of golf in a row on top of OTAs, so he skipped that invite.

I scoff, chiding Jenkins that he’s only 26 but then again, I’m not a six-foot-six, 330-pound professional athlete. Who am I to know what these guys can and can’t handle?

“Trust me,” he laughs. “If we golf twice in a row then try to do OTAs on Friday?”

He shakes his head, giving me no-go look. 

“Ok, that’s true,” I acquiesce. Back to Williams.

“You can tell that he’s definitely a businessman,” Jenkins tells me. “The way he carries himself everywhere. He doesn’t let the outside noise get to his mental. It’s good he can do that, especially in Chicago.”

His eyes dart side to side.

“I’ve seen things these past few years,” he says knowingly, likely referring to Bears’ fans — shall we say passion? — for the team. “So, I’d say he definitely has a good head on shoulders and is going in the right direction.”

Let’s hope those shoulders are also broad.

The weight of expectation isn’t lost on Williams, and it isn’t lost on his line, either. The Bears know what’s at stake this year. They have expectations of themselves that go far beyond what fans and pundits have thrown into the discourse.

But the good news is that there seems to be a tangible difference with the arrival of Williams, and with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. 

“I’d say it’s been working pretty good for everybody,” Jenkins says. “I see everyone being involved in the offense right now. And everyone trying to do their part. Last year, sometimes it was a little uncertain in places, but right now we’re playing unselfish ball. And that’s one thing that we’re probably the most improved at from last year and have the bigger picture in mind about trying to go to playoffs and making that leap this year.”

And a lot of it has to do with the offensive line.

At least, that’s how they see it. 

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV


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