Checking in on Bears’ draft picks, including early splash by WR Darnell Mooney
With 4.38 speed and Allen Robinson as his mentor, the fifth-round pick could be better than anyone expected.
There are plenty of nice things the Bears can say about rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney. He’s uncommonly fast — possibly the speediest player on the team — and he has cornerback-shaking moves that will translate well to the NFL. That’s just the beginning.
But here’s the highest compliment a receiver can get at Halas Hall:
“Reminds me a lot of A-Rob in the meetings,” coach Matt Nagy observed.
A-Rob, of course, is the ever-professional, ever-productive Allen Robinson. He is widely regarded within the organization as the ultimate worker who does every aspect of his job the right way. Anyone who reminds Nagy of him is off to a great start.
Whether he knew that or not before arriving in Lake Forest, Mooney began studying under Robinson in the offseason. When the veteran put out a call for all Bears receivers to join him for workouts in Tampa this summer, Mooney jumped on it. He, Robinson and Javon Wims gutted it out in “crazy” heat, and the rookie got a firsthand look at a player the Bears hold up as exemplary.
If Mooney combines his undeniable skillset with Robinson’s work ethic, watch out. The Bears might be getting a lot more than anyone expected from a prospect they took in the fifth round at No. 173 overall out of Tulane.
He has been getting opportunities with the starters in the first week of training camp as the Bears sort out their receiver hierarchy behind Robinson. Anthony Miller and Ted Ginn have more experience, but Nagy won’t hesitate to roll with Mooney if he outshines them.
He has made good use of his snaps so far, wowing teammates with his speed — he clocked a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the combine — and fluency in the offense.
“I’m very comfortable,” Mooney said. “If you know the plays, you don’t have any type of confusion or discomfort with it. If you know what you’re doing, you just go out there and play ball.”
Mooney isn’t the only Bears rookie making a splash at training camp. While some of their seven draft picks are considered more long-term developmental projects, a few already look poised to make an impact this season. Here’s a quick check-in on each of them:
Second-rounders Cole Kmet, Jaylon Johnson
Kmet has been the star of the draft class so far, which is exactly what the Bears hoped. They took him No. 43 overall, the highest of any tight end this year, and needed him to be an instant-impact player. They’re looking for a combination of him and Jimmy Graham to turn around one of the worst positions on last season’s roster.
Nagy couldn’t stop talking about how quickly Kmet mastered the playbook in the offseason, and tight ends coach Clancy Barone took it a step further by assessing that he’s “ahead of schedule” for a rookie.
“I think that he’s going to be a star in this league,” said safety Tashaun Gipson, who has been covering him. “He’s a bigger guy than you would probably imagine for a guy that can run and catch like that. So the tight end group, I feel like, is definitely beyond solid. They’re going to help us win some football games for sure.”
That would be the opposite of what happened last season.
As for Johnson, he has a path to a starting job, but still has to battle Kevin Toliver to secure it. Former first-round pick Artie Burns was in contention, too, but tore his ACL. While Johnson is favored to win the competition, he hasn’t taken over yet.
Fifth-rounders Kindle Vildor, Trevis Gipson
It was a challenging draft for the Bears, who had just two of the first 150 selections. Their most valuable picks after the second-rounders were Nos. 155, 163 and 173 in the fifth. They landed pass rusher Gipson, cornerback Vildor and Mooney believing they’d plucked a trio of gems on the third day of the draft.
“We felt really good in that fifth round getting all three of those guys, and so far so good,” Nagy said. “There’s been no concern of, ‘Uh oh, I’m not sure if this was a good pick.’ Not at all. They are all doing really well.”
Gipson has been getting some snaps as a second-string outside linebacker because the Bears are limiting Khalil Mack and having Robert Quinn work on the side.
“We’re not cheating Trevis by any means on reps; he’s getting plenty of opportunities to get evaluated and get better,” position coach Ted Monachino said. “The one thing I will tell you is I think the projection was a really good projection.
“There’s been nothing that said to me that this guy can’t do what we ask our guys to do at the position... He’s young and he’s learning, but I think he’s a guy that can make big steps as he moves forward.”
Vildor has proven competent as well, but the depth chart is stacked against him. The Bears figure to open with Kyle Fuller and Johnson on the outside and Buster Skrine in the middle, and Toliver and Duke Shelley would be next in line.
Seventh-rounders Lachavious Simmons, Arlington Hambright
The numbers were never in favor of Simmons or Hambright making the 53-man roster, but that’s less of a negative this year than in the past. With the expanded practice squads and a provision allowing teams to protect those players, they certainly can stick around as essentially third-string offensive linemen.
Most teams operate with five starting linemen and three versatile backups, and the Bears’ plan for that unit is fairly obvious. Jason Spriggs and Rashaad Coward are on track for two of the reserve spots, leaving one for Hambright (probably a guard), Simmons (probably a tackle) and a couple of veterans. Former Notre Dame guard Alex Bars was with the team last season and has the best shot.
Nonetheless, Nagy has seen signs that both rookies can make it in the NFL.
“Right where we want them to be,” he said. “When you get drafted in the seventh round, sometimes there’s that word ‘developmental’ attached to you, but in our case right now with [offensive line coach Juan] Castillo, it’s let’s go right away. So he wants to develop them ASAP, and I think they’re learning what he teaches and they’re doing a good job.”