Establishing (Realistic) Expectations for Rome Odunze

| July 9th, 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 looked yesterday at QB Caleb Williams, and today will focus on WR Rome Odunze, before ending tomorrow with a look at DE Austin Booker.

The Setup

To get a baseline for Odunze, I looked at all WRs drafted near him in the last 10 years. Odunze was drafted 9th overall, so I went +/- 5 picks and looked at WRs drafted between 4th and 14th. This gave a list of 17 players who were viewed fairly similarly to Odunze coming out of college, and enables us to see what history has to say about reasonable expectations for Odunze, both as a rookie and in his career.

Rookie Performance

With that setup in mind, let’s take a look at how those 17 WRs fared as rookies. Full data can be seen here, but the average stat line for these players was 13 games and 680 snaps played, with 91 targets leading to 54 catches for 766 yards and 5 TD.

That’s not bad – those values would have ranked 41st among WR in targets, 46th in receptions, 40th in yards, and 28th in TD. Basically, the average player in this sample has performed like a mid-tier WR2.

Of course, there are a wide range of outcomes, from John Ross getting 2 targets and 0 catches to Ja’Marr Chase posting 1455 yards and 13 TD, so it’s probably more helpful to split the WRs into groups. The table below does that, explaining how each group was classified and how they performed. I should note that Kevin White is excluded from the sample, since he didn’t play as a rookie due to injury.

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 1st thing I notice is that there’s a huge gap in the middle. 10 WRs had 800+ receiving yards, 7 had less than 500, but nobody was between 500-800. So it looks like WRs either hit the ground running in their rookie seasons or didn’t do much, without a real middle ground.
    • It’s promising that more than half of the sample falls in the former category, as the Bears have very little depth behind their starting WRs and will need Odunze to be a meaningful contributor from day 1.
    • All 10 WRs in the first 2 categories finished as the WR1 or WR2 on their teams in their rookie seasons in terms of targets. With DJ Moore and Keenan Allen in place, Odunze seems destined to be the WR3. I don’t think he’ll get enough targets to hit 800+ yards (all 10 of those WRs saw 100+), but think he’ll likely finish with more than 500, so in that sense he seems pretty unlikely to fit neatly on this table his rookie season.
  • For a little context on efficiency, I found earlier this offseason that the 59 WRs with 75+ targets in 2023 averaged a 65% catch rate and 8.4 yards/target.
    • Those numbers have likely fluctuated some over the last 10 years, but that’s a decent baseline for comparison, and it suggests rookie WRs – even the highly successful ones – catch passes targeted to them at a lower than average rate. Only 2 of the 16 WRs had a catch rate of 65% or higher.
    • Of course, the 1000+ WRs, which make up nearly half the sample, also posted an above-average yards/target mark, which suggests they are gaining a lot of yards when they do catch the ball. Overall, 6 of the 12 rookies with 50+ targets exceeded that 8.4 yards/target mark.
      • This also matches the trend we saw for rookie QBs yesterday.
      • This lower catch rate but high yards/target matches Odunze’s college profile quite well (he had a catch rate that was 2% lower than the average for Washington WRs but a yards/target mark that was over a yard higher than the average in 2023), and seems like a reasonable expectation for him as a rookie.
  • Overall, it seems that WRs hit the ground running more effectively than QBs do in their rookie season. The 10 WRs in this sample who had 800+ yards averaged a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 80.6 in their rookie seasons. I don’t love PFF grades and rarely use them, but anything above 70 is considered a plus starter, so this suggests that PFF at least thinks these WRs stepped in and played at a high level from day one.

Career Outcomes

Now let’s look beyond their rookie seasons to examine career outcomes for these WRs drafted similarly to Rome Odunze. Like we did above, I’m going to split the WRs into groups based on their rookie performance, to see if that is predictive of the rest of their career. The table below shows how many of each group hit a variety of metrics.

A few thoughts:

  • It should come as no surprise that career outcomes for WRs who post 1000+ yards as rookies are really good. All 7 have been starters for their whole careers and posted 1000+ yards pretty much every year (32 of 35 career seasons), and more than half have made the Pro Bowl, which is not easy for a WR (DJ Moore, for instance, has never done that).
    • Just a casual look at the 7 names on this list should get you excited for Odunze’s career in the unlikely event he hits 1000 yards as a rookie: Ja’Marr Chase, Odell Beckham, Garrett Wilson, Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, Chris Olave, and Jayden Waddle.
  • The outcomes are still quite good, though not to that level, for the WRs with just under 1000 receiving yards in their rookie season. All three of them remained starters for their whole career, and one of them became a consistent 1000 yard WR.
    • It’s worth noting here that 2 of the 3 are still early in their careers: Drake London and DeVonta Smith. The other is Sammy Watkins.
    • That’s not a bad comparison group for Odunze either, as they are all good quality WRs, though it’s probably not quite the heights Bears fans are hoping he reaches.
  • Things actually still look pretty decent for the 300-500 yard receiving group. That consists of DeVante Parker, Henry Ruggs, and Corey Davis. No stars, but only Ruggs fully busted, and that was for off-field reasons.
  • The lowest group, below 100 yards in your rookie year, is where we get to the biggest busts from this group: John Ross and Kevin White. It also includes Mike Williams, who has been an inconsistent starter, and wild card Jameson Williams, who missed most of his rookie season with injury and was fairly quiet in year 2.

Lessons Learned

In case you got lost in the last 1150 words, or didn’t feel like reading through all of it, here are the main takeaways:

  • History suggests that Odunze has a good chance to hit the ground running and produce as a rookie, but his spot on the depth chart behind DJ Moore and Keenan Allen will make it hard to match the volume many of the comparably drafted players saw in their rookie seasons.
  • When he does get the ball thrown his way, Odunze is likely to catch a fairly low rate of passes, but still has a good shot to produce an above-average yards/catch rate. This suggests he will be something of a big play specialist, which matches how he was used in college.
  • Odunze’s rookie performance will give us a pretty good indication of what to expect from him in his career. Generally, WRs who produce a lot as rookies turn into quality long-term starters. Some of those who had quiet rookie seasons ended up busting, but still more than half of them turned into adequate starters.

Overall, history suggests Bears fans should feel quite optimistic about Odunze’s future, but how well he performs as a rookie will give us a better feeling for whether we can expect a solid starter or a superstar.

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