Where will USC’s Caleb Williams end up in the NFL? 21 years of history point to this weekend’s games

For the four 0-3 NFL franchises heading into this weekend, the futility has existed on a spectrum. From the sheer agony of the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos, to the missed opportunities of the Minnesota Vikings, to the predictable growing pains of the Carolina Panthers.

For two of these franchises, it will only get worse on Sunday.

Thanks to a scheduling coincidence that rarely happens, all of the league’s four remaining winless teams will collide with another member of their unfortunate fraternity — sending the Broncos on the road to face the Bears, and pitting the Vikings against the Panthers in Carolina. Barring a tie, two of these franchises will exit Week 4 with an 0-4 start. Typically we focus that record through the 1992 San Diego Chargers, who remain the only Super Bowl-era franchise to start 0-4 and make the playoffs. Rarely do we crunch the numbers in the opposite direction. Such as, how often an 0-4 team ends up with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

That takes on particular importance this season, largely due to one player: USC’s Caleb Williams — who is being touted NFL personnel departments as having potential to ascend to the league’s most elite rung of quarterbacks.

As one AFC general manager put it, “Saying he’s a Patrick Mahomes or even comparing him that way is really unfair, but if you want to compete with that quarterback [standard] — which we all should — this guy can get you there. He has the makeup to come in and immediately start turning a franchise around.”

If he enters the 2024 NFL Draft (and most believe he will), Williams is expected to be the No. 1 player across virtually every board. That makes him a remarkably special prospect for any team that ends up with the top pick — whether the franchise already has its foundational quarterback or not. And given how percentages have broken down the last 21 years, that makes this Sunday worth watching for a handful of fan bases. Especially the quartet of 0-3 teams that are facing each other.

Consider the numbers.

The last time the No. 1 overall pick went to an expansion franchise, it was the Houston Texans in 2002. In the 21 drafts since then, the top overall pick was ultimately decided on the football field. And the four-week mark was typically a very good compass. Of those 21 drafts:

  • 15 times (roughly 71.4 percent), the No. 1 overall pick was landed by a team that started the season 0-4.

  • 4 times (19 percent), the top pick went to a team that started 1-3.

  • 2 times (9.5 percent), the first overall pick went to a team that started 2-2.

While those figures might not sound like total a lock for 0-4 teams, it’s worth noting that five of the last seven years, the top pick has gone to a team starting the season 0-4. And at one point in the last 21 years, 10 straight drafts (from 2003 to 2012) featured an 0-4 team eventually landing the No. 1 overall pick.

The bottom line? If a franchise starts the season 1-3 or 0-4, history suggests it’s in a pool of teams that will land the top overall pick. And in the 2024 draft, we might as well call it the Caleb Williams sweepstakes.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how the No. 1 overall pick might fit into the future of the four 0-3 franchises set to play each other …

Where might USC quarterback Caleb Williams play in the NFL? History points to this weekend's games being a significant forecaster. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Where might USC quarterback Caleb Williams play in the NFL? History points to this weekend’s games being a significant forecaster. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) (Jayne Kamin-Oncea via Getty Images)

The Carolina Panthers

We’ll start here because it’s simple. For those who have been asleep at the wheel — surprise! The Panthers don’t have their own 2024 first-round pick. They traded it to the Bears for the right to move up and draft Bryce Young No. 1 overall in the 2023 draft. So you can remove Carolina from the 0-4 equation … aside from the fact that it’s possible the Bears could lose to Denver Sunday and exit the weekend owning the first-round draft rights to both of the league’s 0-4 teams. If that sounds like an immense edge for the Bears, we’ll get to that in a bit.

The Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings are intriguing, because they are arguably the best suited to maximize Williams immediately if they were to somehow slide into the No. 1 overall pick. First, you have a forward-thinking offensive head coach in Kevin O’Connell. Then you have the passing options for the USC star, which would already be juiced with Justin Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson and Williams’ former college teammate Jordan Addison. Minnesota would also still have its own second-round pick to add another helpful piece to the offense, but only a moderate amount of money in free agency, due to a $28.5 million cap charge that would accelerate to the Vikings’ payroll if an extension isn’t worked out with Kirk Cousins. But even with that situation, this franchise would be the plug-and-compete team that could instantly start building quickly into a competitive window with Williams in the fold.

Could it happen? Well, the Vikings are 0-3, but all three games have been close. Those same assets that would serve Williams so well are here now with Cousins, and that will likely translate into some wins and distance from the top overall pick — even with the sixth-toughest schedule remaining at this point in the season. But it’s also possible that the Vikings suffer through a season that is essentially the opposite of 2022, when they caught seemingly every green light on the way to the postseason. If that happens, the first overall pick could be in play. And while it’s extremely doubtful, it shouldn’t be ruled out that if the Vikings are somehow winless heading into the Oct. 31 trade deadline, Cousins could still be dangled as a half-season trade rental for another team. It’s unlikely, but you never know if a potential contender suddenly loses a quarterback to injury.

The Denver Broncos

I hate to cast this kind of shadow on the Broncos, but that 70-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins has to make you wonder if anything was fundamentally broken inside the franchise from a morale standpoint. We really won’t know until we see what they look like against a Chicago Bears team that is sharing the same pit of despair after so much has gone wrong this season. The odd thing here is that you could argue both ways in terms of a fit for Williams. If Russell Wilson amounts to nothing more than a mediocre quarterback this season, then it makes pure football sense that Williams fits. Conversely, if Wilson rebounds to at least a Pro Bowl level, it would put Denver into position to deal the pick. But Wilson rebounding would also make it less likely that Denver stays in the running for the top overall pick.

Russell Wilson's play will have a big impact on whether the Broncos are in play for Caleb Williams, one way or another. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Russell Wilson’s play will have a big impact on whether the Broncos are in play for Caleb Williams, one way or another. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images) (Megan Briggs via Getty Images)

On the flip side, if the Broncos do continue to plummet — and Wilson is clearly part of the problem — this comes down to money. Could the Broncos get rid of Wilson next offseason and draft Williams to replace him? Yes, but if they did it, they’d have to incur a massive $85 million cap hit that would either be fully rolled onto the 2024 cap, or (with some gymnastics) split between the 2024 and 2025 seasons. Due to the cap implications, getting rid of Wilson and drafting Williams would signal one thing for the Broncos: They’re starting over in full rebuilding mode, with Caleb Williams as the centerpiece and offensive mastermind Sean Payton in place to develop him to his ceiling.

The Chicago Bears

There’s a reason why the Bears look like a favorite for Caleb Williams. First, because they own Carolina’s pick, which as we mentioned before could put Chicago in control of the draft rights of both of the league’s 0-4 starts this season. That’s a pretty remarkable piece of leverage. The second reason that tends to slide chips on the Bears ending up with Williams? Because everything is seemingly coming apart at once for the franchise. From the murky departure of defensive coordinator Alan Williams to an almost unbelievable regression in quarterback Justin Fields, Chicago is absolutely crashing. And nothing would drive that point home more than a loss to the Broncos this weekend at Solider Field. If you can’t manage to notch a home win against a team that just lost by 50 points one week ago and has their own issues, who can you beat? So the downside of “why” the Bears could end up with Caleb Williams simply through their own record is obvious. When you add Carolina’s pick on top of it, the Bears have better odds than anyone.

As for the football sense of it, there’s a few avenues to recognize. First, if Fields doesn’t pan out this season, there is no saying the team didn’t give the relationship a chance. They went all-in on him last offseason and the results thus far are very troubling. It’s fair to suggest the coaching, scheme and offensive line have plenty to do with his early regression, but that’s beside the point. If it doesn’t work by the end of the season, it doesn’t work. That said, the second point to recognize here is there is upside. Unlike Trey Lance, Fields has shown enough in his starts to at least make him somewhat attractive to someone on the trade market. Bottom line, I think the Bears would have some suitors. Nobody is giving up anything close to a first-round pick for him at this stage, but I think Chicago could do solidly better than the fourth-round pick that the San Francisco 49ers extracted for Lance.

Beyond the fact that Fields is tradable, the Bears also still have the assets in place (like wideout D.J. Moore) that were collected for Fields this offseason. Williams could work with all those pieces immediately. There’s also the additional upside of having a second first-round pick in a draft that should be filthy with offensive talent, both on the offensive line and in the skill positions. Chicago could use that pick to add another core offensive player (like an elite offensive tackle or wideout Marvin Harrison Jr.) to grow with Williams. Or they could go the Patrick Mahomes-Travis Kelce route and draft dynamic Georgia tight end Brock Bowers to give Williams a long-term mismatch tight end to work with.

The only question in all of this? Does defensive-minded head coach Matt Eberflus stay, or does ownership demand an offensive hire to pair with Williams moving forward?

We’ll see how it all unfolds with these 0-4 teams, with the knowledge that the potential 1-3 teams would be lurking with that historical 19 percent No. 1 overall pick rate in the last 21 drafts. That pool could still be pretty expansive coming out of Week 4, with two of the aforementioned 0-3 teams likely to move to 1-3, along with a whopping 11 franchises entering the weekend at 1-2 with the potential to fall into the 1-3 grouping: the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans (whose first-round pick in 2024 is owned by the Cardinals), Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams.

Some of those teams would roll out the red carpet for Caleb Williams. Others would trade the No. 1 overall pick, and others would have a decision on their hands. But make no mistake, if they’re going to bottom out in a season, this is the one to do it. If only for the world of rebuilding possibilities after the crash.

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