Rookie Bears Player Poised to Challenge $21 Million Starter for Starting Job

V. Carbonneau
June 6, 2024  (1:23 PM)

Ryan Poles in action
Photo credit: Sports Illustrated

The Chicago Bears have already penciled in their two first-round rookies as starters for the upcoming season, but they may not be the only newcomers making an impact.

Head coach Matt Eberflus named quarterback and No. 1 pick Caleb Williams the starter shortly after the NFL draft, while ESPN lists the 9th overall selection, Rome Odunze, as the team's third starting wide receiver—a role that appears his to lose. Additionally, punter Tory Taylor, the best player at his position in the NCAA last season and a fourth-round pick, is also likely to secure a starting spot on special teams.
While the Bears selected defensive end Austin Booker in the fifth round as a long-term project, he has a chance to challenge starter DeMarcus Walker for his job, creating one of the more compelling position battles during training camp.
DeMarcus Walker's Struggles in Chicago
DeMarcus Walker's performance in his first season with the Bears left much to be desired. Jacob Infante of Windy City Gridiron highlighted the battle for the second starting DE spot opposite Montez Sweat as one of the most significant position struggles to watch this summer.
Walker, at his best, is a serviceable starting EDGE, but he fell short last year. His main competition is Booker, whom the Bears traded a 2025 fourth-round pick to acquire in the fifth round of this year's draft. Booker is a toolsy, lengthy edge rusher with a quick first step and a high motor. However, his raw processing skills and lack of a consistent pass-rush plan could limit his immediate impact in Year 1. Despite this, Booker has the tools to become an NFL starter, although a learning curve is expected.
Chicago signed Walker to a three-year, $21 million deal last offseason after he posted a career-high 7 sacks with the Tennessee Titans. However, he managed only 3.5 sacks in 17 games with the Bears in 2023. Walker's Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade dropped nearly 14 points from 72.8 two years ago to 59.1 last season, with his run defense particularly struggling.
Walker, who will turn 30 next season, carries a salary cap hit of $8.67 million.
Austin Booker's Potential with the Bears
The Bears made a significant investment in Booker, who recorded 12 tackles for loss and 8 sacks at Kansas. By trading a fourth-rounder in 2025 to draft him in the fifth round, Chicago showed their belief in his potential. Dan Brugler of The Athletic identified Booker as a top potential steal of the draft class, though he noted that Booker might not be ready for a significant role as a rookie.
«The Bears used a 2025 fourth-round pick to trade back into this draft (at No. 144) and scoop up Booker, who easily could have been drafted on Day 2,» Brugler wrote. «Although he isn't ready for a meaningful role as a rookie, Booker has the promising pass-rush savvy to be a steal when we look back at this selection in two or three years.»
Infante, however, believes Booker might be ready to compete for the starting role sooner than expected. If Booker can prove himself during training camp, he could bolster a Bears pass rush that ranked 31st in the league last year.
If Booker meets expectations, he could save the Bears significant money, allowing them to allocate resources elsewhere.
6 JUNE   |   60 ANSWERS
Rookie Bears Player Poised to Challenge $21 Million Starter for Starting Job

Do you think Austin Booker will start over DeMarcus Walker this season? Yes/No

Yes2643.3 %
No3456.7 %
Latest 10 stories