Expectations are usually conservative, if not outright low, for players drafted as late as Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney, but that’s not how he sees it.
So Mooney didn’t know quite how to react when asked about his modest success in the first three games.
“Well, I don’t feel like I’m playing good at all,” he said. “I mean, I’m playing decent, but I feel like I can play way better.
“It doesn’t matter really how much praise I’m getting. I feel like I’ve got to do better.”
It’s good to stay hungry, but Bears management and coach Matt Nagy are already looking at Mooney as a hit. Moreso than his eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown, the most telling indicator of what they think of him is that he has played more than any receiver other than Allen Robinson.
The conversation already has shifted from whether he can take some snaps away from veteran Ted Ginn to whether he might overtake Anthony Miller as the Bears’ No. 2 receiver. Mooney played 51 snaps to Miller’s 47 in the victory against the Falcons — Miller starred nonetheless with the game-winning touchdown catch — and has played 52% of the snaps for the season.
That’s a promising start for a player who was drafted 173rd overall and 25th among wide receivers. Everything he has done since the Bears began on-field work in July pointed toward this kind of potential for Mooney.
“It was probably the first day,” Nagy said. “We knew, ‘OK, yeah, this one’s real.’
“We saw the way that he ran routes and the way that he caught, his personality . . . then the pads came on, and he kept doing it and he kept doing it.’’
From there, as Nagy sketched a plan for his playmakers, he envisioned Mooney as a central piece of the offense.
He had the physical ability with good hands and 4.38 speed, but that’s not enough. Nagy needed to know if he could trust him, and Mooney quickly showed a strong handle on the playbook. That’s been an issue for Miller over the last three seasons and it gives Mooney an opening to set himself apart.
Mooney said a lot of Nagy’s offense is similar to what he ran at Tulane, where he had 96 catches for 1,706 yards and 13 touchdowns over his junior and senior seasons, and learning the playbook went “pretty smooth” with minimal mistakes in preseason practices.
Where Mooney goes from here depends on whether he keeps running sharp routes and getting open. He has been targeted just 11
times, but those chances will come more frequently if he stays on this trajectory.
Mooney is on pace for about 500 yards, which would be a surprising and welcome contribution regardless of how high the Bears’ expectations were when they drafted him. Robinson and Miller were the only players to exceed that last season.
Since 1990, just 28 wide receivers picked in the fifth round or later (including those who went undrafted) have put up 500 yards as a rookie. Some of them went on to terrific careers, including Marques Colston, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs.
There’s no certainty whatsoever after three games that Mooney will reach that level, but what he’s done so far is the first step on that path.