This offseason, I have made it my mission to spare fans the heartbreak and disappointment that inevitably comes from setting unrealistically high expectations for the upcoming football season. In the first installment, I took a stab at the hype developing around second-year tight end, Cole Turner.
Turner is a relatively small fish in the incoming tide of hopefulness that washes our shores every year at this time. In this instalment, I will examine the upwelling of hope surrounding one the two marlins of offseason hope, fourth-year defensive end Chase Young. No other returning Commander has generated such high expectations for a breakout season in 2023, aside from QB Sam Howell whom I will get to shortly.
In fact, Young’s entire career to date has been shrouded in lofty expectations. For those fans just recovering from four-year comas or returning from desert islands (congratulations, by the way), Chase Young was widely regarded as the best player in the 2020 draft. He was selected 2nd overall, with Ron Rivera’s first draft pick in Washington. Shortly after the draft, Rivera had this to say about Young, and the decision to draft him where they did, rather than taking any of the multiple trade offers the team was fielding:
[He’s played] a lot of good football he played the last couple of years,” Rivera said. “Probably as good as anybody I’ve seen. And he’s a guy that can come in and impact our football team. Not just his position, not just the defense, but our football team.
And the thing about it, too, we were at No. 2 and a few of the teams that we talked to were in the second half of the first round,” Rivera said. “You’re not going to get the type of player that we’re talking about right now. That’s the thing that you really can’t do. If you move that far back your top guys aren’t going to be there.
From the start, the expectation for Young was that he would be an impact player who would develop into an elite pass rusher early in his time with the Football Team. Young’s rookie season lived up to those expectations. As we will see in a minute, his first year production put him on pace with many of the elite pass rushers of the last decade, and was recognized with AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl honors. He finished the season with 32 solo tackles, 12 assists, 7.5 sacks, 1 TD, 10 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles, 4 passes defended, and 24 QB pressures.
The expectation heading into the 2021 season was that Young would take the next step, possibly even joining the ranks of the elite players at his position. Montez Sweat pumped the hype with talk about breaking the combined sack record.
It didn’t turn out that way. Rather than taking the next step in sack production that many pass rushers experience in their second NFL seasons, Young went dramatically backward in that aspect of his game and seemed to disappear from games at times. Through the first 8 games of the season, he had recorded just 1.5 sacks, representing a three-fold drop in sack production rate relative to the previous season. His rate of production of tackles for loss also dropped by close to half.
Young’s sophomore slump was not really as dramatic as some have made out. His rate of production of tackles, forced fumbles, defended passes and QB pressures remained about the same as his rookie season. However, he did not improve in any category, and went backward in converting pressures to sacks. Then, in Game 9 against Tampa he experienced a severe ACL tear, which ended his season and sidelined him for 14 more games in 2022.
In line with the trend around the league, the Commanders opted to decline Young’s fifth-year option. He enters the 2023 season with more to prove than any other player on the team. With another offseason to fully recover from his ACL injury, can Chase make up for lost time and catch up to the trajectory he was expected to take when Ron Rivera drafted him second overall?
From discussions on Hogs Haven, it seems that fans are split. Some are already counting him as a bust. Many are hopeful that he can finally break out and become the player that Ron Rivera thought he was drafting. And a few seem to be counting on that happening. In this article, I will examine the developmental trajectories of elite pass rushers in an attempt to determine which segment of the fanbase has the most reasonable expectations.
Elite Edge Rusher Development Timelines
In the previous article on Cole Turner, I considered developmental timelines from elite players down to adequate starters at his position. In Chase Young’s case, however, anything short of elite should be considered a failure. Consequently, we only need concern ourselves with the development of elite edge rushers. Despite the misleading title, I will consider both defensive ends and outside linebackers whose major duties include rushing the passer. A few 3-4 DEs who are primarily down linemen and 4-3 off-ball linebackers who rush the passer might get caught up in the mix in the following section, but not here.
When deciding what metric to use, I considered a few possibilities. Arguments can be made that defensive ends in a four-man front have responsibilities beyond just rushing the passer. But who are we kidding? Edge defenders get paid based on sacks. Not tackle share, not total QB pressures, not AV, not adjusted DVOA, not run stops, not on the number of times they made a QB think twice about his intended target, not even maintaining lane discipline, but good old fashioned bodies hitting the turf.
In order to account for time missed to injury, a crucial consideration in Young’s Case, I divided total sacks per season by number of games played to give Sack Rate (sacks/game) as my metric for comparison. This also adjusts for the change from 16 to 17 game seasons. For ease of comparison, a Sack Rate of 0.625 sacks/game equates to 10 sacks in a 16 game season.
To see how Young’s progress to date compares to that of other elite edge rushers, I plotted the developmental trajectories of all the Edge Rushers voted to the All-Pro teams (AP 1st & 2nd teams, PFWA, Sporting News) over the past five seasons, eliminating one player (Micah Parsons) who has been in the NFL less than four years.
Only four of the 15 All-Pro edge rushers achieved a sack rate of 0.625 or greater as rookies, equivalent to 10 sacks in 16 games: Myles Garrett, 0.636; Maxx Crosby, 0.625; Joey Bosa, 0.875; Von Miller, 0.770.
Chase Young’s rookie season sack rate of 0.500 sacks/game puts him right about on pace with the average of the elite pass rushers, represented by the thick gray line. You don’t have to be a whiz with graphs to see that his developmental trajectory in his second and third seasons is headed in the wrong direction.
Nine of the 15 elite players experienced an increase in sack production from their rookie seasons to their second seasons, while six experienced a decline in production in Year 2. Joey Bosa is the odd man of the group, as he is the only player whose sack production steadily declined through his first six years, although it always stayed above a respectable 0.6 sacks per game.
While Chase Young’s downward trajectory through his first three seasons is a cause for concern, it does not mean he can’t become an elite edge rusher. Four of the players shown here went on to become All-Pros after somewhat similar slow starts to their careers: Shaq Barrett, Trey Hendrickson, Za’Darius Smith, Haason Reddick. Reddick is a bit of an exception because he was moved between positions early in his career in Arizona, and only caught on as an edge rusher when he was moved to outside linebacker full time in his fourth season.
What’s the Chance that Chase Young Breaks Out in 2023?
What would it take for Chase Young to “break out” in 2023? Hogs Haven’s Jamual Forrest posed a similar question in his recent Trap or Dive column. Jamual concluded that he would have to post 12 or more sacks to earn a second contract in Washington on top DE money. I am going to set the bar slightly lower. My analysis asks what is the chance that Young performs well enough in 2023 to make the Commanders consider re-signing him?
If Chase posts more than 10 sacks and plays well in the rest of his game, I expect Rivera to make an effort to extend him, rather than taking his chance on one of the younger players on the roster or going back to the draft to replace him. Hopefully, he doesn’t go back to the well of former Carolina players, which should be well and truly dried up by now.
Eleven sacks in a 17-game season equates to a Sack Rate of 0.647 sacks/game. To get an idea of how likely it is that Chase Young breaks out in 2023, I searched historical player data to ask: how often have edge rushers with Chase Young’s rate of sack production through their first three seasons reached 0.647 sacks/game in their fourth season?
To answer this question, I searched the Pro Football Reference database for all defensive ends and outside linebackers who played their third NFL season from 2012 to 2021. That turned up around 265 players, including edge rushers as well as 3-4 defensive ends and 4-3 off-ball linebackers. I then calculated Sack Rates through the players’ first three years.
Chase Young has achieved a Sack Rate of 0.360 sack/game through his first three seasons. That equates to slightly more than one sack every three games, and is around 68% of the average Sack Rate of the All-Pro edge rushers examined in the first section through their first three seasons. Only 6 players out of 265 had Sack Rates within 1% either way of Chase through their first three seasons, and only one those (Rashan Gary) met the minimum breakout criterion. That would equate to a breakout rate of 16.7%.
To broaden the dataset enough to get a statistically meaningful result, I set the inclusion criteria to players with Sack Rates within 20% of Young’s, either way (0.288 to 0.432 sacks/game), through their first three seasons. These criteria yielded the following sample of 34 comparable players:
Based on these criteria, over the decade from 2013 to 2022, seven out of 34 players with comparable early-career sack production to Chase Young have broken out in their fourth NFL seasons by achieving a Sack Rate equivalent to 11 sacks in 17 games. That gives a probability estimate of Chase Young breaking out in 2023 of 0.206 or a 20.6% chance.
It is worth noting at this point than none of the seven breakout players in this list has sustained a high level of sack production after their breakout season. Harold Landry is entering his fifth season, so it is too early to tell what he will do. The other breakout players regressed to lower Sack Rate numbers after their breakout seasons.
It is also worth pointing out that two of the players who felt just short of the breakout criteria have had very good careers on the edge. Jadeveon Clowney made the Pro Bow and 2nd team All Pro in his third season and made the Pro Bowl the following two seasons, despite posting low sack totals for an edge defender. He has never had more than nine sacks in a season. Matt Judon also made the Pro Bowl in his fourth season and each of the following three seasons. He finally broke into double digits with 12.5 sacks in his sixth season and recorded 15.5 in 2022.
Readers can quibble about the fact that the comparable players list includes some off-ball linebackers, like Shaquille Leonard. I would counter argue that there is no clearcut distinction between pass-rushing and non-pass rushing linebackers, or defensive ends for that matter, and that players who demonstrate an aptitude to rush the passer in their third year will generally be given opportunities in their fourth seasons. Players only made this list if they had more than one sack every four games throughout their first three seasons.
You could also argue that I have biased the results to underestimate Young’s chances by comparing him to players with 20% lower sack production through three years. That does not seem to be the case, since more than half (4/7) of players who met breakout criteria had lower early-career sack rates lower than Young’s, including the player at the bottom end of the sample, former Redskin Junior Galette. On a similar note, it does not appear that the choice of inclusion criteria have resulted in overestimating Young’s chances either, because the players who met breakout criteria are fairly evenly spread throughout the comparison cohort, with one more coming from the group of players with lower early-career production than those with higher production.
Finally, some readers might argue that I have set too low a bar for a “breakout season”. If you define a “breakout” as Chase Young finally living up to his elite billing, they might have a point. In 2022, 16 NFL players had 11 or more sacks, including three defensive tackles (Daron Payne, Quinnen Williams, Javon Hargrave), while the top five pass rushers achieved more than 15. If Chase Young is to demonstrate that he is ready to join the ranks of the NFL’s elite pass rushers, perhaps we should hold him to a standard of 14 or more sacks in 17 games. That equates to a Sack Rate of 0.823 sacks/game. In the spirit of generosity, let’s round that down to 0.800 (13.6 sacks/17 games).
Re-visiting the comparable players list with the new criterion of 0.800 sacks/game identifies just three players out of 34 who broke out in their fourth season after posting comparable early-career sack production to Chase Young: Greg Hardy (15 sacks/16 games), Marcus Davenport (9 sacks/11 games), Junior Galette (12 sacks/15 games). Based on these numbers, I estimate Young’s probability of breaking out into the elite pass rushing ranks in 2023 at 0.088, or 8.8%.
However, none of those players remained in the elite ranks past their breakout season.
What Does the Future Hold for Chase Young?
The preceding analysis shows that, over the past decade, only around 20% of edge rushers have broken out in their fourth seasons after taking slow starts to their careers comparable to Chase Young. However, none of those players has sustained their breakout success. Only around 9% of such players have broken into the elite pass rushing ranks for a single year in their fourth seasons.
That doesn’t mean that, with another offseason removed from his ACL tear, Chase Young can’t bounce back to his rookie season form in 2023, or even exceed where he was in 2020. It just sets some benchmarks to calibrate our expectations about the likelihood of achieving such a remarkable comeback and then sustaining that level of success in future seasons.
If he does break out after the slow start and remain in the elite ranks, he will have accomplished something that very few edge rushers achieved in the past decade. The only two that could be argued to have done so are Matt Judon and Jadeveon Clowney.
Chase Young’s situation is different to most of the comparable players I used for this analysis in that he only played 25 games and missed 15 games to injury in his first three years. Only one of the comparable players (Kerry Hyder) played fewer games in their first three seasons, and only five out of 34 played fewer than 35. Therefore, it is possible that once he is fully recovered from injury, he will bounce back and continue developing into the elite pass rusher that we expected when he was drafted.
Before we get too excited with that train of thought, however, it is worth pointing out that there is another way in which Chase Young’s early career differed from players who have become elite pass rushers in recent years. As I mentioned above, six out of nine All-Pro edge rushers in the past five years had an increase in sack production rate from their rookie seasons to their second seasons. All seven of the players that broke out in their fourth seasons after slow starts also had an uptick in sack production in their second seasons, although in a few cases it was only modest. It is very rare for a player to regress in sack production from his rookie season to his second season and then go on to break out as an elite pass rusher later in his career. Rare, but not completely unheard of.
In conclusion, while it remains possible that Chase Young could go on to become an elite pass rusher, based on an analysis of recent historical player data, the chance of him doing so after the slow start to his career appears to be very low. I estimate the chance that he puts up sack numbers high enough to force the team to consider extending him at around 20%. Given how infrequently comparable players have sustained that level of production after one good year, Ron Rivera was wise to decline his fifth-year option.
Write that last sentence down. It is not something I am likely to say very often.
Over/Under on Chase Young getting 11 sacks in 2023
This poll is closed
What do you expect of Chase Young in 2023?
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Passable but not great
Back to rookie form
First team All-Pro
What should the Commanders do if Chase Young gets 10 sacks and defends the run well in 2023?
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Pay him top DE money
Tag and trade
Don’t let it get to that - midseason trade
Offer him a prove-it deal
Let him walk in FA, hope for a comp pick
Depends on how KJ Henry does