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‘Pleasure’ to coach: WR Darnell Mooney was exactly what Bears needed

All the indicators on Mooney point toward him becoming a star, and for the next two seasons, the Bears are getting that production at an incredible discount.

Mooney is on pace to break 1,000 yards receiving in his second season.
AP Photos

Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor chooses his words thoughtfully and with the perspective of having coached for two decades. So when he described wide receiver Darnell Mooney as “a pleasure” to teach, he meant it sincerely.

There’s a high failure rate in player development, and coaches often must accept that a promising talent simply can’t or won’t adopt what they’re preaching. Those players often are incredibly gifted but unreliable, as the Bears saw in their recent misadventure with former wide receiver Anthony Miller.

After constant frustration with Miller — “You can’t trust him,” position coach Mike Furrey said at one point — Mooney’s arrival as an eager rookie last season was refreshing.

Like Miller, he had exceptional ability and world-class speed. Unlike Miller, he absorbed every syllable of coaching and transferred it to the field.

“It’s fun as a coach,” Lazor said Thursday. “Just like any teacher, your successes come . . . when you see the student get it, when you see that it’s working. And I’m not even saying it’s because of me or because of us, but if you’re teaching someone in the classroom and they [understand] this new math concept, that’s why you’re there.

“I’m trying to think of an example of when he had a hard time getting it. But I can’t.”

The result of Mooney’s studiousness was that he overtook Miller in playing time almost immediately, had a promising rookie season, then took the next step this season. He leads the Bears with 51 catches, 721 yards and three touchdowns.

He’s on pace for 1,000 yards, which would make him just the fifth Bear to hit that number in his first or second season, joining Harlon Hill (1954), Mike Ditka (’61), Marcus Robinson (’99) and Alshon Jeffery (’13).

While Mooney’s numbers are up this season in part because Allen Robinson has battled injuries most of the season and missed three games, most of the credit goes to Mooney for continuing on the upward trajectory he started as a rookie.

Here’s the part where Mooney would interrupt.

He, too, is selective in his verbiage. And he objected this week to the characterization of his season as “good.” That’s a stretch to him.

“I’ve had a solid season,” he corrected. “I’m not too big on it.”

That humility is emblematic of the approach that has gotten him this far. It’s also genuine.

Mooney grew up in Alabama, but didn’t get a sniff from either of the powerhouse programs there. Instead, he landed at Tulane thinking his NFL chances were 50-50.

Even after putting up big numbers as a junior and senior and performing impressively at the combine, he fell to the fifth round. The Bears drafted him No. 173 overall, 25th among wide receivers.

General manager Ryan Pace nailed that pick. Mooney is fourth in his class in career catches (112), sixth in yardage (1,352) and seventh in touchdowns (seven).

By drafting him where they did, the Bears have gotten that production cheaply. Just like with quarterbacks, teams can save substantial money at wide receiver — the third-highest paid position in the NFL.

Mooney’s salary-cap hit is under $1 million this season and next, and he’ll count just $1.1 million against the cap in 2023. That kind of value allows the Bears to spend big elsewhere.

The Bears need to take advantage of that while they can, because regardless of Mooney’s blushing and deflecting, he’s headed toward big numbers — and big money.