How the Bears, Commanders and Patriots Are Handling Their Rookie Quarterbacks at OTAs

Albert Breer talks to three coaches about the different processes of getting Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye up to speed.
Williams warms up before a Bears rookie minicamp practice.
Williams warms up before a Bears rookie minicamp practice. / David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

As a club with a new head coach, the Washington Commanders have been able to get an early jump on a lot of things this offseason—and, as such, their organized team activities got started last week, a week ahead of most of the rest of the NFL.

So when Dan Quinn talks about what he’s looking for in the de facto start of football practice for the 2024 season, he’s not talking in hypotheticals.

“Two things,” Quinn quickly answers, on his way home Friday. “One, first thing, man, what a time to either sharpen your skills or develop them. So I think, number one, top of the pile, that’s really important in our game. Even if you’re already great at something, like, ‘Can I be the best at it?’ So I’m saying, it’s important for Terry McLaurin—and he’s an excellent player already—but it’s still important to sharpen his skills. Certain things, the running, training on your own, lifting, that doesn’t do it for these specific football skills. …

“And then, two, no team is the same year to year. This is not the NBA, where you get to keep a team. So that chemistry, the connection, Albert, gets really important because you don’t start at the same spot every single year. This team here, we’ve got a lot of new faces that we’re adding. So that connection, that chemistry, to get to speed it up, that’s good.”

In other words, this is when 2024 really starts for teams.

So with the Commanders and Atlanta Falcons getting that head start, and the Bengals waiting another week, this week is when 2024 begins for 29 of the NFL’s 32.

Of course, there is plenty the coaches and players won’t be able to sort out until the pads go on, full-contact practices start and preseason games commence in July and August. But between now and mid-June, the groundwork for that will be set, and the rules of engagement for what’s ahead will start to materialize, as those in charge sort through what they’ve got on hand.

In Cincinnati, there’ll be much focus on the right wrist of Joe Burrow. In Kansas City, for the third straight offseason, it’ll be figuring out to whom Patrick Mahomes will be throwing. Same goes, this time around, for Josh Allen and Buffalo. In Philadelphia, how old pieces fit new coordinators Kellen Moore and Vic Fangio will start to come to life. In Baltimore, there’s a reworked offensive line. The Jets, you may have heard, have a quarterback on the mend.

And then, there are the rookies. Every year, this is when everyone, coaches, team execs and fans alike, get to the stars of tomorrow in an NFL context for the first time. There’s a lot of excitement for so many of them, with every team. But above the rest, it’s the quarterbacks.

So in this week’s MMQB, we’re going to go in with the coaches of the teams that took quarterbacks at picks Nos. 1, 2 and 3 to give you an update on where they are going into OTAs.

That’s with info on how each might fit into his team’s plans for 2024.

It’s almost Memorial Day, meaning we’re entering the NFL’s stretch run before the annual summer break. To look ahead to that, over in the takeaways this week, we’re covering …

• The next phase of the Detroit Lions’ build. 

• Why the New York Jets got the short end of the scheduling stick.

• How the old rules of NFL scheduling no longer apply.  

… And a whole lot more. But we’re starting this Monday with a look at how Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye fit into the plans of the Bears, Commanders and Patriots. Come along with us.

Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco changed the paradigm for rookie quarterbacks in 2008—leading their teams to the playoffs and setting the stage for careers where one would become a league MVP and the other a Super Bowl champion. Before ’08, the history on when to start a first-round quarterback was all over the place. Since then, very rarely does anyone wait.

Over the past 16 draft cycles, starting with theirs and ending with the 2023 class, 48 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. Only two—Jake Locker in ’11 and Jordan Love in ’20—failed to start a game as a rookie. One other, Patrick Mahomes in ’17, made it all the way to a throwaway game at the end of the season before starting. A couple of others only made cameos (Johnny Manziel) or spot starts in injury situations (Paxton Lynch).

But for the most part, the rule has been, regardless of what the coaches or GM may say in late-April or May, if you’re drafted that high, you’ll be starting sooner rather than later.

It was with that in mind that the Bears approached their predraft process with the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner. In accelerating the whole thing, with the desire to be fair to former first-rounder Justin Fields (and find him a new home in March), Chicago got to a comfort level with Williams early in the process. Really, by March 1 or so, the overwhelming likelihood was that the team would be going with Williams with the first pick.

That facilitated, yes, the more-timely shopping of Fields. It also gave the Bears the opportunity to start subtly onboarding Williams. As such, the team used the three one-hour Zooms it was allowed to do with the quarterback before the draft to get him ready to run the offense, rather than deploying them as a tool to assess him, like you would with other prospects.

During the first one, the Bears taught Williams the terminology, giving him a foundation on what to call formations and motions within new OC Shane Waldron’s scheme. During the second, they started installing their base, normal-down plays. During the third, they put in red zone and third-down plays.

“We wanted to have our install set for the OTAs, and for rookie minicamp, and we wanted to make sure he had those down during those three Zoom meetings,” coach Matt Eberflus told me Friday. “So when he came into rookie minicamp [on May 9], he was very familiar with those installs. We were very fortunate to do that, and Shane and the offensive staff have done a wonderful job of really making it friendly and learnable for Caleb.”

And that, in turn, allowed for the Bears not to waste any time in officially installing Williams as their starting quarterback.

This was, again, a decision that was well thought out, and traced back to the start of the process, when Chicago was checking boxes in affirming that the guy everyone had figured would be the first pick for about a year and a half would be the first pick for them. In other words, it’s not like Eberflus and GM Ryan Poles just started thinking about making Williams the starter when they picked up the phone to draft him.

Poles was in Kansas City as a young exec for the redshirting of Mahomes, so certainly the Bears could have considered the benefits of a more patient approach. But there was no Alex Smith positioned to play mentor on hand in Chicago, and Eberflus, a bit different from Poles, had the experience of seeing what a strong team coming together around a rookie could do for a young quarterback’s confidence, having seen it as the Dallas Cowboys’ linebackers coach when Dak Prescott was pressed into duty in 2016.

“Once [Tony] Romo got hurt, when he went down in that preseason game out in Seattle, the team just rallied around [Prescott],” Eberflus says. “And I feel that already in our building here. Everybody’s rallying around him. You can feel that with the reps that we got with some of the first on-field stuff we’ve done, with the veterans. You can see the offense, they’re real supportive, and same with the defensive guys. And his personality is infectious. He gets along with everybody; he’s very easy to insert into a locker room.”

So for better or worse, there’s no gray area in Chicago. Williams is the guy.

And so far, so good.

“Just in terms of him the person, it’s been outstanding,” Eberflus says. “I’m talking about a worker—this guy is a worker. He wants to learn, he wants to know everything about the offense, he’s a really good learner, asks great questions, has been great in the quarterback room. I’ve been in there pretty much every time with those guys, and that’s been great, to see that relationship grow with him and Tyson [Bagent], and [QB coach] Kerry [Joseph] and Shane, the guys that are in there. And there’s not a lot of people in there, because we keep it tight, and that’s been wonderful.

“And his interaction with the players in the building, on the field, has been outstanding. Then, obviously the talent, you can certainly see the talent.”

Thanks to this approach, the rest of us will get to see it really soon, too.

Quinn is in a bit of a different spot in Washington.

He’s new. So, too, as he said earlier, is so much of his roster. The ethos he’ll build has the same roots as what he built in Atlanta, with competition emphasized to everyone. So with all of that getting off the ground, both in the makeup of the program and mix on the roster, it’d be pretty tough to tell guys like McLaurin or Jonathan Allen that it’s time to fight for reps, and not have the rookie quarterback do the same.

Now, the downside to that approach, and benefit of doing it the way the Bears are, would normally be in the reps that a guy gets as a starter and misses out on as a backup. Which is why Quinn and his staff, with OC Kliff Kingsbury building the offense, are prioritizing reps in how they’re setting up practice.

Through the spring, that’ll mean running OTAs as “two-spot” practices—with the first and second teams running plays simultaneously to make sure everyone gets the most out of the (limited) time that’s allotted by the league for this time of year.

In doing so, Quinn and his staff will mix guys with the ones and twos to try to give everyone a shot to legitimately compete for playing time. For the quarterbacks, that’ll mean that both Daniels and veteran Marcus Mariota (the 2015 first-rounder, who’s actually one of 23 of the aforementioned 48 first-round QBs to start Week 1 as a rookie) getting work in with the starters and backups, and different combinations of their teammates.

Last week, in what was basically a passing-camp setting, everyone got their first taste of it.

“The fact is they’re both getting the same amount of reps, as opposed to if they were on the same field, and ‘I’ll get 50%, you get 50%,’” Quinn says. “It’s not just Jayden. It’s a good way for all these younger players [to] get extra turns, extra reps. So I did that all of [last] week and then next week, there’ll be times, O.K., those two can flip in terms of how we  do it with some players changing some fields. It’s been an effective way to get more reps for more players in a passing emphasis.”

The play calls on each field, both for the offense and the defense, are identical, giving the coaches a side-by-side look at their team, both live and on tape.

That said, Quinn isn’t living with his head in the clouds.

Obviously, you take a kid No. 2, he’s going to wind up your starter, whether it’s now or later. “Yep,” Quinn says, “correct.” So he acknowledged that while the quarterbacks are competing, an offense is being constructed by Kingsbury for Daniels’s skill set, which is one reason why the March signing of the mobile Mariota was an early tell that the Commanders were leaning heavy toward taking the reigning Heisman winner.

“A hundred percent,” Quinn says. “What we learn with any player, ‘O.K., this is a concept that he rips it on this route. This specific concept you can see it. So how do you feature a player into those spaces?’ So the first part of the OTAs—we’ve had three practices, we have three more [this] week. And so you just keep stacking on and, ‘O.K., what about this, what about this, what about this?’ And you find out the things that he’s exceptional at. But it is a process, and the cool part about it is, the hard-working part of it has clearly showed up.”

And it manifested pretty much right away, before Daniels even touched the practice field.

On the day after the draft, the Commanders brought him in for the normal, perfunctory press conference. Daniels came in, met with his new coaches, met with the press and, most importantly, got his first NFL playbook to take home with him. The next day, after Daniels and his family were ushered home, Quinn heard a story that stuck with him.

“The plane ride back home, where everybody else was sleeping, he was going through the hand signals of the offense, of how he’s going to communicate,” Quinn says. “So he just got drafted the night before, came here, did a press conference, did meetings and on the ride home, as opposed to just sleeping, he’s giving commands, doing hand signals, going through the offense. He wasn’t wasting a second. If nothing else, there’s an urgency and a work ethic that I thought was gonna be really strong.”

And after the rookie minicamp, Quinn continued, that was only cemented.

“It turns out,” the coach continues, “it’s exceptional.”

After seeing it over that second weekend in May, Quinn wanted to find a way to show his veterans what he’d already seen. So early on the first day, he put Daniels out there with the first team, so they could see for themselves that he’d already gained a level of command with the offense, a sign from the rookie to his older teammates of just how serious he’d taken the two and a half weeks since being drafted.

So where he may not have gotten the on-ramp that Williams did—the Commanders really installed with him just once predraft, and that was at the 30 visit nine days before they selected him—it was pretty apparent he was doing everything and anything he possibly could to make up for any lost time.

“He loves football,” Quinn says. “That came across. So like, ‘All right, Dan, what does that mean?’ I’m talking about wanting to just put in the extra time. You can tell how important it is to get it right and go for it. So I learned how much he loves it. Like, it’s evident by how hard somebody’s going for it. I knew he was an excellent competitor, everybody said that. But to see him take his work and communicate and already establish some leadership in the way he carries himself and works—that was cool to see.”

Quinn, and all his players and coaches, will get to see a lot more of it over the next month.

Maye taking the field at Patriots rookie minicamp / Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

For right now, new Patriots coach Jerod Mayo, with his first game as Bill Belichick’s successor in front of him, is leaving things as wide open as any of these guys.

“It’s all competition,” he said on Saturday morning. “It’s all about going out there and competing. I don’t know how this thing will play out.”

So starting Monday, the Patriots will roll the balls out there and let Maye compete with veteran Jacoby Brissett, 2022 and ’23 spot starter Bailey Zappe, and sixth-round pick Joe Milton III. And they’ll do it with the coaching staff’s acknowledgment that Brissett, heading into his ninth NFL season, and with experience both in the offense (he played for OC Alex Van Pelt in Cleveland in ’22) and the market (he was a Patriot in ’16 and ’17), has an early leg up.

Because they were picking third, and just putting together an offense, with Van Pelt working with Ben McAdoo, T.C. McCartney and Mayo to do that, and leaving open the idea of trading out of the pick, it was too complicated for the Patriots to give Maye the kind of predraft headstart that certainly Williams and even Daniels had in April.

Add to that the fact Maye is seen as a little green coming in, with some fundamental corrections coming, and he seems, of the three, to be easily the most likely rookie quarterback starting the season on the bench.

That said, early returns on Maye have been good—he’s got an easy way about him allowing for him to meld quickly with the veterans and coaches alike. He knows he has a ways to go.

“I would say that sponge mentality has really stuck out,” Mayo says. “When you go on those interviews, they’re told to act like they have all the answers. That’s not him. He understands the dynamic of the room. He’s been listening, absorbing.”

Mayo then paused, and added that with OTAs starting, “It’s a big week for him because now it’s a little bit of offense versus defense and we’ll see how it plays out."

Really, that part of it applies to all these guys, but especially those with fewer reps, that, naturally, saw fewer things from defenses in college. Maye started seven fewer games than Williams as a collegian, and 29 fewer games than Daniels, so, as Mayo intimated, starting to close that gap with reps in a controlled environment, where he has to apply what he’s learned of the offense against what a defense is throwing at him, will be key.

At the same time, so is having Brissett, for both the Patriots and Maye. For the young quarterback, he’ll get to learn at the foot of a guy who has seen it all—who was once a backup for Tom Brady, was pressed into duty as a rookie because of Brady’s Deflategate suspension, was the guy for the Indianapolis Colts when Andrew Luck shockingly retired, and had to navigate being a stand-in for Deshaun Watson during Watson’s suspension. For the team, he’s a capable option to start if Maye isn’t ready.

“Jacoby is a competitor,” says Mayo, who’s just getting to know Brissett, since Brissett’s time in New England came between Mayo’s time as a Patriots player and a Patriots coach. “But he doesn’t hold knowledge close to the vest. He wants to help everyone. He just wants a fair shot competing. It’s been great to have him around.”

For now, the idea is to give everyone that fair shot.

Mayo’s already employing some of the two-spot practice structure Quinn is using in Washington, and he’ll continue to so Maye, Brissett, Milton and Zappe get as much work in as possible while Van Pelt & Co. put in the new offense. The plan is to narrow the competition down to three guys by the end of spring, so everyone can be more efficient in the summer.

For now, one assumption you can make is that Maye won’t be the odd man out. Outside of that? Again, this one is wide open.

And so these teams, and the other 29, are off for 2024.

At this stage, there are still a lot more questions than there are answers. But for three defensive coaches bringing along three wildly talented young quarterbacks, there sure isn’t anything more important this spring than the progress of those guys.

They’re all going about it a little differently, even if the end goal for each is exactly the same.

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Albert Breer