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Bears hope rookie WR Darnell Mooney can be dynamic playmaker upon arrival

Mooney was underestimated as a high school prospect before starring at Tulane. NFL teams might have slept on him in the recent draft, too, and he figures to get a shot at a significant role with the Bears in 2020.

Mooney had 2,572 yards and 19 touchdowns in four seasons at Tulane. The Bears drafted him in the fifth round this year.
Mooney had 2,572 yards and 19 touchdowns in four seasons at Tulane. The Bears drafted him in the fifth round this year.
Julio Cortez/AP

It’s hard to get too excited about a fifth-round pick, but incoming Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney’s elite speed would grab anyone’s attention.

Mooney will get the opportunity to earn a significant role in the team’s remodeled wide receivers room. Coach Matt Nagy has been dreaming up ways to use a guy who clocked a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Lots of players are considered fast in college, but Mooney’s speed still will stand out in the pros.

He’s more than just a burner, though. In four seasons at Tulane, Mooney proved to be one of the most reliable, durable and savvy players in the program. Incidentally, he also sharpened a skill that will serve him well with the Bears.

“Made a lot of tough catches,” Green Wave coach Willie Fritz said. “Our accuracy was a little bit of an issue. He turned a bad throw into a good catch — he did that a bunch of times.”

There’s plenty the Bears could do with Mooney, but he spent the majority of his college career as a deep threat. If he can maintain that aspect as a pro, it’ll add something this offense struggled to establish last season.

Mooney was Tulane’s premier pass-catching weapon from the time he arrived. He delivered a monster season of 48 catches, 993 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior in 2018. Mooney dropped to 48, 713 and five last season but was still one of the most dangerous players in the American Athletic Conference.

“They ended up in a lot of man-coverage situations, and he’s a tough cover in man,” Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery said. “He caught the ball well. He was precise in his routes. And he’s got that great speed.

“His overall outright speed, he’s such a challenge. . . . You can’t ever let him get behind you because he has the capability of eating up yards in a hurry.”

A talent like Mooney usually doesn’t slip past the major programs, but Fritz figures his size was a deterrent as a high school prospect and in the draft, where he went 173rd overall.

Mooney was listed at 6-1, 170 pounds on Rivals.com but has never been 6 feet, and Fritz estimated he was 155 pounds when he signed with Tulane. He checked in at 5-10, 176 pounds at the combine. That would make him the lightest player on the Bears’ roster, a hair smaller than kicker Eddy Pineiro.

“Some teams told me they were worried about his blocking at that size, but he’s tenacious,” said Fritz, who added that Mooney also was an impressive tackler when needed on special teams. “Half of it is just wanting to do it, and he’ll stick his nose in there.”

Like the rest of the league, the Bears are on hold as far as figuring out exactly where their rookies fit on the depth chart. With organized team activities all but canceled and minicamp unlikely, newcomers such as Mooney won’t get their chance until training camp.

But he has good reason to believe he’ll get a shot.

Allen Robinson is the Bears’ only surefire wide receiver. They are optimistic that Anthony Miller will make a jump in Year 3, but coaches have been openly frustrated with his grasp of the offense the last two seasons. After that, it’s Ted Ginn (35 years old), Javon Wims (22 career catches), Riley Ridley (five career games) and Cordarrelle Patterson (17 targets last season).

Mooney’s speed will immediately get him in the mix; his smarts could keep him there. Fritz, who described him as one of the most “cerebral” players he has coached at Tulane, often used Mooney as the example for other players and has no doubt he’ll find a way to thrive on special teams or out of the backfield if Nagy uses him that way.

“You hear all the time when a guy gets drafted, ‘Oh, he’s the greatest kid in the world,’ but this one really is,” Fritz said. “He’s a great young man. He never missed a class or a study hall or a tutoring session or a meeting.

“Players will show up five minutes late sometimes and complain when I make them run: ‘Oh, Coach, come on. That could happen to anybody.’ I’d say, ‘Well, not Darnell.’ Just a great kid.”