Establishing (Realistic) Expectations for Caleb Williams

| July 8th, 2024

The Bears have three rookies with a chance to play meaningful roles on offense or defense this year, so I want to take some time this week to look at what history can tell us about what to expect for those players, both in their rookie seasons and in their careers. We’ll start today with QB Caleb Williams, shift tomorrow to WR Rome Odunze, and end with a look at DE Austin Booker.

The Setup

To get a baseline for Caleb Williams, I looked at the last 10 QBs drafted 1st overall, going back to Sam Bradford in 2010. I only wanted to look at QBs drafted 1st overall because they are significantly different than other highly drafted QBs in a few notable ways:

  • They start immediately. 9 of the 10 #1 picks in this sample started at least 10 games as rookie, with an average of 14.3 starts. 5 of the 19 QBs drafted 2-10 in the same years started fewer than 10 games, with an average of only 10.8 starts for the sample.
  • They have better career outcomes. 7 of the 10 #1 picks in this sample earned significant 2nd contracts to be starting QBs, with the verdict still out on 2023 pick Bryce Young. Only 8 of 19 drafted 2-10 hit the same threshold (I am assuming CJ Stroud will as one of those 8), with the verdict still out on Anthony Richardson.

QBs are by far the most valuable players in the NFL, and so any QB who is widely regarded as a top-level prospect is going to get drafted #1 overall. Accordingly, I want to compare Williams directly to his peers, not to others who might get drafted highly out of desperation.

Rookie performance

With that setup in mind, let’s take a look at how these 10 QBs fared as rookies. Full data can be seen here, but the average stat line for these players was 504 pass attempts, 60% completion, 6.7 yards/attempt, 17 TD, 13 INT, and an 80.2 passer rating.

That’s not a great stat line – for a quick comparison, the average NFL passer rating over this stretch has been around an 89 – which makes sense given that QBs usually struggle as rookies. That should be the basic expectation for Caleb Williams, who will almost certainly have plenty of  rookie moments in 2024.

However, I want to dig into the data a little differently, because NFL passing stats have changed quite a bit since 2010. In that time span, season averages for completion percentage (60 – 65%), yards/attempt (6.5 – 6.9), touchdown rate (4.1% – 4.8% of passes), and interception rate (2.2% – 3.0% of passes) have all fluctuated quite a bit, and a rookie’s performance should be taken in the context of overall NFL performance that year.

To account for this, I did a simple +/- system comparing a player’s stat to the NFL average for the year. For example, if the NFL as a whole completed 65% of passes, but a rookie QB completed 60%, they would have a -5% (60 – 65 = -5%), while the same 60% completion would only be a -2% if the NFL average was 62% that year. The table below shows the data for completion percentage, yards/attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, and sack percentage for all 10 QBs compared to the NFL norms for their rookie seasons. Values well worse than the NFL average are highlighted in red, while those appreciably better than the NFL average are highlighted in green.

Side note: sorry if there are formatting issues with the table. You can view it in full by clicking on it. 

A few thoughts:

  • There are 2 areas where almost all QBs in this sample struggle: completing passes and throwing touchdowns.
    • Only 1 of the 10 QBs completed more passes than the NFL average, while 7 of 10 were below NFL average, with 5 of them being at least 4% worse than the NFL norm.
    • Only 1 of the 10 QBs threw TDs at a higher than average rate, while 8 of them threw touchdowns at least 0.5% less often than the NFL average.
  • The other three areas see more mixed results that seem to be player-specific.
    • The overall average for the sample was only 0.1 yards below the NFL average in yards/attempt, with 3 QBs being at least 0.5 yards/attempt above average and 4 being at least 0.5 yards/attempt below average.
      • The yards/attempt values being closer to average than the completion % suggests these QBs tend to average more yards/completion, and are probably throwing it deeper on a whole than the NFL average. It makes sense that they need to learn when to take checkdowns in the NFL, which will probably be needed more often than in college.
    • The average interception rate for the rookies is also right around the NFL average for their season, with the average rookie #1 pick throwing an INT 0.1% more frequently than the NFL as a whole. 3 players were at least 0.5% better than the NFL average, while 5 were at least 0.5% worse.
    • The sack rate also varied quite a bit, with the overall average for the sample being about 0.7% higher than the NFL average. 3 players took sacks at least 1% less than the NFL average, while 4 took them at least 1% more than the NFL average.
      • You might be tempted to chalk this up more to the offensive line than the QB, but there is now ample evidence to show that sacks are a QB stat more than an OL one.
  • The net outcome is that the QBs in this sample almost universally perform worse than NFL average as rookies. It didn’t fit in the table, but using passer rating as a rough metric for passing performance shows that 6 of 10 finished at least 5 points below the NFL average, with 0 finishing even 1 point above NFL average in their rookie season.
  • One other stat that didn’t fit in the table is that these QBs lost a lot as rookies. Only 1 of the 10 finished .500 or better, with the average going about 5-9 on the season.
    • Of course, Caleb Williams is stepping onto a team that went 7-10 last year, while the average team getting the #1 draft pick was appreciably worse than that.
      • The 10 teams that drafted these QBs averaged 2.7 wins the season prior, so they improved by an average of over 2 wins in their QB’s rookie season, with 7 of the 10 winning at least 2 more games than the year before.
      • To be fair, there’s not really anywhere to go but up when you were the worst team in the NFL. Improving from 3 to 5 wins is much easier than 7 to 9.
    • There were two QBs from this sample who stepped onto 7 win teams: Bryce Young (2-14 as a rookie) and Jared Goff (0-7 as a rookie). Those are not apples to apples comparisons to the Bears with Williams, but it does show that adding a highly rated rookie QB to a roster comparable to the Bears’ from 2023 doesn’t guarantee instant success.

Career Outcomes

Let’s move now to thinking beyond the rookie season to career outcomes. It’s hard to quantify these statistically since 7 of the 10 QBs are still playing, but there are some lessons to be learned.

  • Most become long-term starters. 7 of the 10 (Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton) earn large contracts to start beyond their rookie deal.
  • Most are pretty good. 8 of the 10 have made at least 1 Pro Bowl (admittedly, that’s not a super high bar, since Mitchell Trubisky also counts in that category), while 6 of them spent at least a few years widely viewed as one of the top 10 QBs in the NFL (Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Jared Goff, Andrew Luck,  Cam Newton, by my count).
  • Most are not great. Only 1 – Cam Newton – has won an MVP or made an All Pro team.
    • This is admittedly a super high bar, as this basically means you were one of the 2 best QBs in the NFL in a given season, but that’s reasonable for greatness.
    • There is still plenty of time for good young QBs like Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence to improve those numbers a bit. It wouldn’t be a shock to see either of them elevate their game to that level. Joe Burrow, for example, finished 4th in MVP voting in 2022, implying he was the 4th best QB in the NFL that year.
    • If you want to look for a slightly lower threshold, 4 of the 10 QBs have had at least 1 season with 4000 passing yards and 30 passing TDs, a feat that roughly 5 QBs per season have accomplished in the NFL since 2010.

Lessons Learned

We’re 1350 words in, so let’s wrap this up with a nice little summary of what we learned by looking at the last 10 QBs drafted 1st overall.

QB performance varied quite a bit in their rookie seasons, but generally we can expect Williams to complete fewer passes and throw fewer touchdowns than NFL average. However, he may do ok gaining yards and avoiding interceptions and sacks. The Bears are also likely going to lose more games than they win when Williams is starting.

Looking beyond his rookie season, Williams is likely to turn out as a quality starting QB worthy of a significant extension beyond his rookie contract, but the odds are not great that he turns into an MVP-caliber player.

Of course, it’s also worth remembering that there are always exceptions to general trends. Most rookie QBs struggle, but Baker Mayfield was really good. Maybe Williams plays like that in his rookie season. Most #1 pick QBs turn out to be pretty good, but Jameis Winston is a career backup. Maybe Williams ends up following that path.

There are no absolutes or guarantees, but history tells us that Bears fans should feel pretty good about Caleb Williams’ career prospects, just not so much his rookie season.

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