The Darnell Mooney storyline for 2021 is pretty simple: If he can be as productive as he was as a rookie in a bad Bears offense, just think how good he can be in a good Bears offense.
That’s presuming the offense will be better with Andy Dalton and possibly rookie Justin Fields at quarterback, and with a healthier, more consistent offensive line. If that happens, Mooney, with his 4.38 40 speed, figures to be one weapon taking the biggest leap.
With no on-field work in the offseason program because of the coronavirus and no preseason in 2020, the 5-11, 174-pound Mooney still caught 61 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns after being drafted in the fifth round out of Tulane.
A year ago, the Bears weren’t quite sure what they had in Mooney. Now, they know.
“Now it’s our job to make sure that he gets lots of opportunities,” coach Matt Nagy said after Wednesday’s OTA practice at Halas Hall. “He’s a threat in this offense and what he’s doing out here in OTAs, he’s gotten even better. He has that inner drive. It’s that DNA thing that not everybody has, but he has it and we’re lucky.”
As for Mooney, he wasn’t satisfied with just being a surprise last season. “They told me that I exceeded expectations and that I played very well,” he said. “To me, I didn’t exceed everything I wanted to accomplish. Going into Year 2, I want to be more of a threat to defenders and more of an asset to this team.”
Mooney won’t sneak up on anyone this season — already, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey is well aware of him — but the Bears are confident he will respond to that challenge. He wasn’t a one-trick pony who relied on raw speed to beat unsuspecting defenders last season. On the contrary, his versatility, aptitude for the nuances of the position and ability to learn could give him the edge in Year 2.
Just the year’s experience will give him opportunities to make plays he could not make last season. “I can’t remember anything off the top of my head, [but] I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of [plays] that I want back that I can’t get back,” he said.
That’s where experience comes in.
“Extremely beneficial,” Mooney said of last year’s experience. “Sometimes, before the play even happens, I can see a play out of my head and then see a defender’s body language and understand the defense a little. It’s extremely beneficial to have that experience.”
One Mooney play last year that Bears fans want back is the deep ball against the Rams, when Mooney burned Ramsey and was open for what could have been a 95-yard touchdown. But Nick Foles badly overthrew him for an incompletion.
Ramsey took so much heat from Bears fans on social media for that play that he responded on Instagram when the 2021 schedule came out, with the Bears facing the Rams in Week 1.
“Can’t wait til week 1 so all these lame ass Bears fans can stfu about they number 2 wr,” Ramsey wrote.
Mooney smiled when asked about that Wednesday. But he’s way too smart to take that bait.
“There’s a lot of defensive players that are on our schedule,” Mooney said. “There’s a lot of strong defensive backs. It’s going to be a good year, a lot of fun this year. I’m looking forward to playing.”
Asked who he was most looking forward to playing, Mooney still couldn’t be goaded into a silly war-of-words.
“Not really, man,” he said. “I’m just looking to [winning] every game that we have and I’m looking forward to winning the Super Bowl this year.”