Establishing (Realistic) Expectations for Austin Booker

| July 10th, 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 started with QB Caleb Williams, looked yesterday at WR Rome Odunze, and today we’ll end the series with a look at DE Austin Booker.

The Setup

Booker was drafted in round 5 this year, so to look at historical comparisons I examined all 29 defensive ends selected in round 5 over the last 10 drafts. Full data set can be seen here.

Some might argue that Booker was projected as a 3rd round pick before the draft (he was 85th on the Consensus Big Board), so he should not be compared to typical 5th rounders, but Arif Hasan, who runs the Consensus Big Board, has found that “steals” – players who are drafted appreciably later than their pre-draft media projection – end up performing more in line with their draft slot than their media projected slot, so comparing him to other 5th round picks is still a valid approach.

Rookie Performance

With that in mind, let’s examine how these 29 defensive ends performed as rookies.

Overall, defensive ends drafted in the 5th round didn’t do much; their average stat line was 202 snaps, 12.5 tackles, and 1.5 sacks. Of course, there was a wide fluctuation of outcomes among 29 players, so the table below breaks them up into groups based on how many snaps they played.

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

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing that jumps out to me is that half of the sample (14/29) basically didn’t play as rookies, appearing in less than 100 snaps. That’s the most common outcome for a 5th round defensive end as a rookie – they are inactive on game day.
  • Out of the remaining half of the sample, the majority played between 200-350 snaps, which is roughly a DE4 role under Matt Eberflus.
    • This was the role played by Dominique Robinson in 2023 (242 snaps, 12 tackles, 0.5 sacks), so it shouldn’t be too much to replace.
    • There’s certainly an easy path to this amount of playing time for Booker, as Chicago’s DE depth chart is very thin. Barring an addition before training camp, Booker currently appears to be competing with veteran Jacob Martin for the DE3 role, with the loser likely assuming DE4 and falling into this group.
    • It’s worth noting that rookies in this group generally don’t play very well, with an average Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 58. Generally PFF grades between 65-70 are around average, so these players are well below that, with only 2 of 9 reaching average grades.
  • Only 6 of 29 – roughly 20% – of players in the sample have earned a significant role as rookies, playing between 350 and 550 snaps, which roughly makes them a DE3.
    • This is the high-end outcome for Booker in 2024, and it’s certainly possible if the Bears don’t add a veteran DE in the next few weeks.
    • It’s worth noting, then, that these players still don’t play super well as rookies. Their average PFF grade was a 55, with only 2 of the 6 earning an average grade of 65, and only 2 of them exceeded 3 sacks as a rookie.
    • This suggests that sometimes rookies might get large roles simply due to the poor quality of the roster they are on, not because they are playing well enough to justify it. Bears fans are familiar with this idea, as the defensive end with the most snaps in this sample was Dominique Robinson, who was awful as a rookie in 2022 and finds himself in a fight to make the roster this year.

Overall, then, expectations for Austin Booker’s rookie season should be very low. At best, he might provide serviceable depth as an adequate DE3 or DE4, but history suggests the odds of even doing that are less than 15% – only 4 of 29 players in the last 10 years have earned a DE3 or DE4 role with an average PFF grade as rookies. He should not be expected to significantly impact Chicago’s pass rush, as only 2/29 – less than 10% – had more than 4 sacks in their rookie season.

Career Outcomes

Let’s switch gears now to thinking beyond 2024 to what history tells us about possible career outcomes for Booker. Once again, we will see that expectations should be minimal.

  • Only 5 of the 29 players spent at least one season designated as a starter (starting 8+ games, according to Pro Football Reference), and only 2 of those have started for 2 or more seasons.
  • Only 7 of 29 – a little less than 25% – had at least one season in their career with 5+ sacks, which an average of 84 players have accomplished per season over the last 5 years in the NFL (roughly 2.6/team). Only 3 of those had multiple 5 sack seasons.

The vast majority of 5th round defensive ends never accomplish much of anything in the NFL, but as we can see in the table below, career outcomes do change based on the role they earn as rookies.

A few thoughts:

  • Players who don’t play as rookies – which again is half of this sample – basically never accomplish anything in the NFL, failing to establish themselves as starters or even valuable reserves. If this happens to Booker in 2024, especially with how barren the depth chart is at DE, we can pretty much write him off from any future impact.
  • The odds of eventual success improve the more you play in your rookie season, though again none of them are great. History suggests Booker has about a 1 in 3 chance of having even one season working as a meaningful pass rusher if he serves as a DE4 this year, and about a 1 in 2 chance if he earns a DE3 role as a rookie.

Lessons Learned

A lot of Bears fans are really excited for Booker, but history says pretty clearly that expectations for him should be tempered. The odds suggest that he has only about a 50% chance of playing as a rookie, and then will likely be pretty bad if he does play. That doesn’t change much when you look beyond 2024 to the rest of his career, as most defensive ends drafted in a similar spot to him don’t ever end up amounting to anything in the NFL.

Of course, there are always outliers. Matt Judon is one of the 29 players on this list, and he has started for 7 years (and counting), made 4 Pro Bowls, and racked up over 65 career sacks. I could have easily written two years ago that starting left tackles don’t get drafted in the 5th round, and yet Braxton Jones is doing just that for the Bears.

The odds are against Booker, but that doesn’t mean he is guaranteed to fail. Bears fans can only hope that Booker bucks the odds and becomes a meaningful contributor for a pass rush that is in desperate need of help.

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