Bears WR Darnell Mooney ‘on fire’ as he looks to leap in Year 2

It’s no longer Allen Robinson carrying the Bears’ wide receivers on his own. Mooney is primed to deliver a big season.

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Mooney was the 25th wide receiver taken, but finished fifth among rookies in catches (61) and seventh in yards receiving (631).

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Everything a coach says this time of year needs to be scrutinized to figure out what’s true and what isn’t. There was a lot of talk the last few summers about Mitch Trubisky being on the brink of a breakthrough and Anthony Miller finally figuring things out.

But here’s something that probably is true: Based on the evidence he put forth last season, the Bears’ belief that wide receiver Darnell Mooney is primed for stardom seems legit. They’re right to be excited.

“Mooney is on fire with his route-running,” coach Matt Nagy said Saturday. “He’s running some routes right now that I really hadn’t seen him running. . . . He’s putting his own spin and stamp on more routes.”

Mooney’s emergence means the Bears could have one of the stronger wide-receiver combos in the NFL. Mooney is looking to build on a rookie season of 61 catches, 631 yards and four touchdowns, and veteran Allen Robinson totaled 200 catches, 2,397 yards and 13 touchdowns the last two seasons.

They’re an ideal tandem for new starting quarterback Andy Dalton and could be exactly what rookie Justin Fields needs when he takes over. Robinson is in his prime at 27; Mooney is 23. If the Bears ever relent and sign Robinson to a long-term deal, that’s quite an asset for Fields.

Mooney played like an experienced receiver from the moment he showed up at Halas Hall and quickly overtook Miller in the pecking order. He played 73% of the offensive snaps, second only to Robinson among skill players, and finished seventh among rookie receivers in yardage despite being the 25th pick at his position.

All that while he was supposedly still trying to get the hang of playing in the NFL. He hadn’t even settled in yet. Imagine what he’ll do now that he’s at ease.

“Last year, I was just trying to be at the right place at the right time,” Mooney said. “This year, I’m more comfortable just taking my time and being able to win the route. So just having that confidence and being able to run the route is definitely different than last year.”

Mooney is still punctual and precise, making Dalton’s job much easier, but he’s experimenting with different ways of getting to the correct spot. That’s what Nagy meant by making the routes his own. Mooney has been testing different fakes, changes of pace and other moves to get past cornerbacks.

He wants to be more sophisticated than simply relying on his speed, and that’s one reason the Bears preferred him over Miller. They spent years trying to convince Miller to run reliable routes; Mooney did it from Day 1.

“I didn’t think I was a fast guy until I ran a 40,” said Mooney, who was third among wide receivers with a 4.38 at the combine. “I was always thoughtful of running routes. I want to be known for my route-running and just being able to do things after the [catch].”

The Bears have assembled what could be their strongest receiver group since Nagy took the job, with Marquise Goodwin and Damiere Byrd rounding out their top four, but no development will be as important as Mooney taking a step forward.

Robinson is no longer the Bears’ only dependable option, as he was in 2019, when no other receiver put up 80 yards in a game until Thanksgiving. Now they have two receivers who will preoccupy a defense, and that’s going to make everything about their passing game look better.

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