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NFL Draft

Is Darnell Mooney Bears’ WR1?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 5, 2021
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Usually, if a team has a player like Allen Robinson on its depth chart, there’s little question about who the No. 1 wide receiver is: It’s A-Rob. Robinson’s been that guy through his first three seasons with the Chicago Bears, but in 2021, there appears to be a changing of the guard.

Second-year wideout Darnell Mooney had a breakout game last Sunday against the Detroit Lions, totaling five catches for 125 yards. He was the preferred target for Justin Fields, who took advantage of Mooney’s blazing speed with several downfield shots.

Mooney earned an elite 92.2 grade from Pro Football Focus in Week 4, moving his season mark to 74.9, a number markedly higher than Robinson’s 67.4. His ascent in the wide receiver pecking order goes beyond the analytics, too. He’s logged 27 more snaps than Robinson this year and leads the Bears in targets (25). Robinson doesn’t trail by many, however. He’s been targeted 23 times.

Mooney’s been more productive with his targets than Robinson as well. He’s turned his looks into 17 catches for 226 yards while Robinson’s season has been a major disappointment with just 13 catches for 149 yards and one touchdown. Fantasy football managers know all too well how frustrating Robinson’s start has been.

What’s more frustrating for Robinson is his contract status. He’s playing the 2021 season on the franchise tag and there’s virtually no chance the Bears will tag him again next offseason. Essentially, 2021 is a contract year for Robinson who’s on pace to finish with the worst numbers of his career.

Meanwhile, Mooney is being featured like he’s the most important weapon in the passing game, and he may just be. It’s been quite the rise for a player who entered the NFL without much fanfare as a fifth-round pick from Tulane. He was knocked for being undersized—he weighs 175 pounds soaking wet—but his blazing speed was considered a trait that would help him stick in the league. Four games into his second season, he’s thriving.

His connection with Fields helps, too. 

“Me and Mooney, we stay almost every day after practice to throw at least a few extra routes so me and him are pretty much always on the same page,” Fields said after the game Sunday. “He had a great day today. He balled out."

Mooney’s work ethic shouldn’t come as a surprise. Remember, he’s the guy who bought a JUGS machine for his house after signing his first NFL contract.

What’s more encouraging than Mooney’s desire to be the best is that he shares it with Fields, and together, they could be in the midst of forming the kind of quarterback-wide receiver combination that will be mutually beneficial. Fields will trust Mooney to make a big play, and Mooney knows Fields will look his way when a big play is needed.

Maybe Week 4 was a fluke, and maybe Robinson will take back his crown as the Bears’ alpha receiver on Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders. But Mooney doubled Robinson’s targets against the Lions, and the chemistry he’s building with Fields (who most likely will start Sunday despite Matt Nagy doing his best to get in the way of what’s best for the team) should lead to continued looks in bunches.

Is it too soon to declare Mooney the Bears’ breakout player of 2021? Maybe. He did, after all, have just one catch for nine yards against the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago. But his success against the Lions wasn’t unexpected. He was identified last season as a key young piece that Chicago intends on building around.

It’ll be interesting to watch the dynamic between Robinson and the Bears unfold as the season marches on, especially if his target share doesn’t get back to where it was in 2020. Robinson had 157 targets last year; the next closest pass-catcher was Mooney with just 94. That won’t be the case in 2021. If anything, A-Rob and Mooney will end the year separated by just a handful of targets.

That’s a good thing for the Bears. They’ll be able to enter next offseason with a competitive offer to Robinson to keep him in town while knowing that if he receives a more lucrative deal elsewhere, Mooney is ready to ascend to the unquestioned go-to role… if he isn’t already there.

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