The Tour of the Top Four: Caleb Williams

by Sam Bruchhaus|April 17, 2024

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Leading up to the draft, we will be bringing you THE TOUR OF THE TOP FOUR, a data-driven journey to the NFL draft for each of the top four quarterbacks. We will be providing you with a summary of the careers of J.J. McCarthy, Drake Maye, Jayden Daniels, and Caleb Williams. You can find companion discussions to the articles on The Class Play Podcast, which can be found on the SumerSports Show Podcast Feed on your audio platform of choice. 

As we close out the “Tour of the Top Four”, I will allow myself to turn this introduction to the personal. I have seen two of the four players covered in this series in real life. I watched Jayden Daniels play in Tiger Stadium in a blowout matchup against Army, and I left that game with a similar opinion of Daniels as before I watched, that Daniels was a Heisman contender and would likely be drafted highly based on his platform year’s play. 

I have also seen Caleb Williams play. I came in to the 2023 edition of the Cotton Bowl thinking very highly of him, especially since he had just won the Heisman a few weeks earlier. 

The experience left me in utter terror of his playmaking ability. That terror (no exaggeration) causes me to still have nightmares. 

Given, Williams’ USC Trojans were playing my beloved Tulane Green Wave, who were riding high on perhaps the biggest turnaround in college football history. Make no mistake about it, this introduction (which will be followed by more objective, analytical analysis, I promise) is highly emotional, for that afternoon in Dallas I was a highly partisan fan. So partisan in fact that until the writing of this article, I have not watched a re-run of that game or the highlights, not because I thought that the re-watch could not take my sentiments on the game any higher (which is likely true). But, rather, because I still harbor a fear for the carnage Caleb Williams enacted on the Green Wave defense that day. 

Live in “Jerry World”, Caleb Williams racked up 462 yards of total offense including 5 touchdown passes. He was never sacked. The Trojans were in the 95th percentile of Expected Points Added (EPA) per dropback and the 91st percentile in 3rd Down Success Rate. He completed big passes of 74 yards, 59 yards, and 30 yards. Not only was Williams unstoppable in structure, but he was also virtually untouchable out of structure, where his elusiveness and willingness to keep his eyes downfield led to chunks of yards throughout the entirety of the game.  

The nightmare throw, in particular, came as Tulane was marching back into the game late in the third quarter. Deep in their own territory, Williams uncorked a beautiful pass, which virtually traveled from the goal line to the 50-yard line accurately into the hands of Brenden Rice, ultimately leading to a 75-yard gain which was neatly finished up with a passing touchdown to (seemingly) put the dagger in Tulane’s heart. 

But, in what became a refrain as his college career progressed, USC did not win this game. A chain of events that stand today as one of the more confounding in New Year’s Bowl history went as follows: a kick returner muffed a kickoff into the sidelines leading to the Trojans getting the ball at the 1-yard line, they ran straight up the middle for no gain, and then were stopped for a safety. USC’s defense, which had struggled all game against Tulane’s power attack, then proceeded to give up a game-winning drive with virtually no time left on the clock. Alas, Caleb Williams’ masterpiece was squandered. 

 

Now, we did not gather here today to wax poetic about the Tulane Green Wave or the stunning flair of Caleb Williams’ play in his sophomore season bowl game. Rather, let’s take a data-driven approach to parsing out what makes Williams one of the most sought-after prospects in years and a virtual lock for QB1 in this draft class. 

 

Of all the top quarterbacks in the 2024 draft, Caleb Williams has the most direct line from high school to the draft stage. Williams was a composite 5-star recruit and the second-ranked quarterback in the 2021 college recruiting class. The summer before his senior season, he was named the MVP of The Elite 11 quarterback competition, joining a club of recent previous winners such as C.J. Stroud, draft classmate and past teammate Spencer Rattler, Justin Fields, and Tua Tagovailoa. Taken together with his high school track record of winning, Caleb had about as impressive of a pedigree as a high school quarterback can have before committing to play for Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. 

The initial expectation was that Williams would sit behind Spencer Rattler during his first-letter season at Oklahoma. In Rattler’s first season as starter, he had been quite successful, racking up 1st Team All-Big XII honors alongside a Freshman All-American award. Indeed, Rattler was named the starter in the offseason with little fanfare. Ironically, at least for the purposes of this piece, cracks in Oklahoma’s façade began when it barely beat a Tulane team that had been displaced from a hurricane and ultimately went 2-10. Despite going 30 for 39 with 300-plus yards, Rattler was definitively outdueled by 2024 draft prospect Michael Pratt, earning an EPA per dropback in the 64th percentile to Tulane’s 81st. Rattler followed that performance up with comparatively low-scoring affairs against Nebraska and West Virginia along with another tight game against Kansas State. Despite leading the team to an undefeated record and a #6 ranking, Rattler had not led Oklahoma’s Air Raid offense to a victory in the EPA per drop back battle all season. Going into the Red River Shootout against the 21st ranked Texas Longhorns, Oklahoma had a full-blown midseason quarterback controversy on its hands. 

After a paltry start against the Sooners’ bitter rival, Caleb Williams’ road to the NFL draft began with a bang. First, Williams came in for a “Wildcat” look on 4th and 1. After 66 yards to paydirt, Williams made the first big play for Oklahoma of the entire game. Oklahoma dug a deeper hole and found themselves down 35-17 with two and a half quarters to play, so Williams entered the game permanently with his work cut out for him. In short, Williams did all the work necessary. Icily, Williams made big play after big play to mount what was seemingly an impossible comeback. When it was all said and done, Williams had added about 53 percentage points of win probability to the Sooners in one of the best games of the 2021 season, if not recent history. From then on, Williams was the captain of the ship. However, the season did not quite live up to the impressive standard Oklahoma had set for themselves as losses against Baylor and archrival Oklahoma State left the Sooners out of the Big XII Championship. 

A mere day after the Sooners final loss, it became clear that Williams’ career may play out somewhere other than Norman. In a shock to the college football system, Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for the University of Southern California. Though Williams played in the Alamo Bowl victory for the Sooners, he soon found himself out west, poised to lead the Trojans into a new era. 

 

Quite quickly, it was clear that Williams and Riley had restored USC to a top tier team. By the third week of the season, USC was ranked in the Top 10, and the Trojans never dipped below the 70th percentile in EPA per dropback. Though they fought a rock fight against a stingy Oregon State team that ultimately ended the season ranked, Williams prevailed by leading a game-winning drive. USC kept it going and sported a #7 ranking and an undefeated record when they rolled into Salt Lake City for a Week 7, top 25 matchup against the Utah Utes.  

In one of the most exciting games of the year, Williams did his part to contribute to a shootout. He completed about 60% of his 42 pass attempts for 381 yards and 5 touchdowns. He also ran for 96 yards, though he was sacked 4 times by the Utes defense and fumbled once. However, the Trojan defense couldn’t hold, and the Utes scored a late touchdown followed by a two-point conversion to beat USC by a single point.  

USC went on to finish the regular season without another loss. Excellent performances against #16 UCLA  (88th percentile in EPA per dropback) and #15 Notre Dame (90th percentile in EPA per dropback) vaulted Williams into being the favorite for Heisman trophy and USC into playing for a playoff spot in the PAC-12 championship in a rematch against Utah. Though the Trojans started off strong in that game, Williams gashed his throwing hand and sustained a hamstring injury that massively hindered the USC offense and ultimately led to their demise. Nonetheless, Williams took the Heisman home, and the Trojans made the aforementioned New Year’s Six bowl appearance against Tulane where Williams had a dazzling game, but the Trojans still took the loss. 

 

While the 2022 season was a breakthrough for Williams and the Southern Cal program more generally, 2023 was substantially bumpier. After starting the season with 6 straight wins in which Williams only went under the 84th percentile in EPA per dropback once, USC lost all four ranked matchups as the season went on, giving up over 30 points in every game. Williams’ best games, in terms of EPA per dropback, were against powerhouse Washington and Oregon teams, but those games were the only ones in the back half of the season where he topped the 62nd percentile. 

To be fair, Williams lost his 2nd team All-PAC-12 center, 2nd team All-PAC-12 running back, 2nd  team All-American left guard, and Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver going into 2023, and this likely led to the letdown of a 7-5 regular season record. Williams also had to overcome a defense which ranked 121st of 133 teams in points per game allowed. In the aggregate, he still ranked in the top 15 of ESPN’s QBR metric, though he dropped from 86.5 to 82.3 

A key reason for this was his struggles with sacks, which has become a narrative as we move closer to the draft. According to ESPN, he nearly doubled the negative impact of his sacks on a per play basis in 2023 and StatsBomb data shows that he is  6th in pressure-to-sack ratio in this year’s draft class. Couple this with a platform year penchant for fumbling and some memorable off-the-field moments, and a minority have begun to believe that Williams is not the lock that others say that he is. 

Despite the off-year, Williams has been immensely stable in terms of his draft prospects. He has been the number one pick by expected draft position virtually since June of 2023, with very little movement. Given the Bears traded quarterback Justin Fields, it appears the runway is cleared for Caleb Williams’ arrival at O’Hare. In fact, internet sleuths have even “confirmed” the pick by entering his high school jersey number into the Bears merchandise shop and receiving errors. At the current state, it would be a shock if Williams did not go #1, and though he seems like one of the simplest “locks” in years, Williams will certainly have to overcome some of the negatives that plagued him last year to live up to that status. 

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