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Darnell Mooney Proving He’s A True WR1

  • The Draft Network
  • November 17, 2021
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Chicago Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney has experienced something of an expedited learning curve in the NFL. After being selected in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Mooney exceeded expectations as a rookie last season and almost instantly became a critical piece to the Bears’ passing game. His continued development was expected in 2021, but his ascent to Chicago’s go-to target for quarterback Justin Fields is something of an astonishing storyline.

Mooney’s growth in the offense isn’t a surprise because of him; he’s a talented player who flashed near-elite route-running as a rookie and who brought a veteran’s work ethic to his first season in the league. But the fact he surpassed Allen Robinson in the target pecking order is, in a word, shocking. Mooney has 59 targets through nine games while Robinson has had 50 passes thrown his way. Mooney has 111 more receiving yards than Robinson and twice as many touchdowns.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Instead, Robinson was supposed to have one of the best seasons of his career now that he’s finally playing with a quality quarterback in either Andy Dalton or Justin Fields. Instead, he’s been used as a secondary or tertiary option with only 14 targets (total) over the last three games. Compare that to 2020 when Robinson had five games with at least 13 targets. 

Is it possible that the Bears are being nefarious with their game plan and intentionally elevating Mooney as the first read in their playbook? Maybe coach Matt Nagy doesn’t want his young quarterback to depend on a wide receiver who probably won’t be around next season. And if that’s the case? Yeah, it makes sense to push Mooney to the front of the line.

But there’s that whole talent issue at play here, too. Mooney is an extremely talented player. His young career is already littered with highlight-reel routes, including this infamous snatch-your-soul moment against All-Pro Jalen Ramsey:

Mooney’s rookie year put him on the map as one of the exciting young wide receivers in the NFL who analysts circled as a player on the rise:

His offseason continued that momentum with social media clips of his workouts with Andy Dalton, before Fields became a thing:

And with Robinson, too:

Now, more than halfway through the 2021 season, Mooney’s built on the preseason expectations and, in a way, has an even greater responsibility: he has to continue his much-documented connection with Fields as the Bears traverse into this next-gen passing game.

“Me and Mooney, we stay almost every day after practice to throw at least a few extra routes,” Fields said in October. “So me and him are pretty much always on the same page.”

That ‘same page’ is tracking for a career-best 850 yards for Mooney this year, up from 631 as a rookie. He should top the four touchdowns he scored in his first season too. While he may not end up with the kind of stat line that screams fantasy football superstar, his arrow is pointing up—way up—because of the bond he’s built with Fields.

Mooney’s growth is a boon for the Bears for reasons that extend beyond the field. He’s under contract (a rookie contract that won’t pay him more than $1M in annual compensation until 2023) for two more seasons, and if he produces as Chicago’s No. 1 wideout at a steep discount, he’ll combine with Fields to give the Bears flexibility to spend big money at other positions over the next few free agency periods. Maximizing these windows of high production on cheap rookie deals is a critical variable in Super Bowl runs, and the Bears have a few of those pieces in place right now.

Mooney’s best game of 2021 came in Week 4 against the Detroit Lions when he caught five of seven targets for 125 yards. It was a game that showed off his complete range as a player:

The tough catch:

The smooth route-running:

The downfield playmaking:

In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that Mooney is the Bears’ best playmaker on offense, regardless of position:

As the Bears return to the field in Week 11 against the Baltimore Ravens, expect an even heavier dose of Mooney as Fields’ WR1. There’s just too much of a sample size to suggest the first half of the season was a fluke, or that Robinson will suddenly resume his role as the Alpha in the passing game.

Mooney is entering that point in a player’s second season where they begin making an even bigger jump as a pro, which should be an exciting development for a player who’s already provided his fair share of thrills.

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