Bears WR Darnell Mooney: ‘I’m gonna be here for a while, and I’m gonna be a threat’

The NFL is full of cautionary tales about gifted players who were filtered out for reasons that had nothing to do with talent. Mooney’s story is the opposite: An illustration of how to set oneself apart in a hyper-competitive field.

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A photo of Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney making a play in the season opener against the 49ers.

Mooney was the 25th wide receiver drafted in 2020, but ranks third in his class in catches.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The one thing receiver Darnell Mooney has craved throughout his football career is respect, and he rarely has gotten it.

His high school career wasn’t good enough for him to get major scholarship offers, despite playing near Alabama and Auburn. The electricity he showed at Tulane was unconvincing, and he waited until nearly the end of the fifth round in 2020 to get drafted. The Bears took two other players in that round before grabbing Mooney 173rd overall.

Mooney went 25th among receivers in that draft but ranks third in his class in catches (143), sixth in receiving yards (1,694) and seventh in touchdown receptions (eight) heading into the Bears’ game Sunday against the Packers. He had only one catch for eight yards in the opener, but passing was problematic overall as rain saturated Soldier Field.

Given that he has done nothing but ascend, it seems as though the football world eventually would have to concede Mooney is the real thing. But even after turning in a strong rookie season and putting up 1,055 yards in the Bears’ dreadful offense last season, he is still mostly dismissed as a legitimate No. 1 receiver.

He wants to change minds, but he’s starting to accept he might not be able to.

‘‘I want to have my name known — that’s respect in the league,’’ Mooney told the Sun-Times. ‘‘I’m here and I’m gonna be here for a while and I’m gonna be a threat. I want that type of respect.

‘‘But I know what I can do. I have respect for myself. I can’t do anything about it if I don’t get respect from others, but it would be a nice thing to have. Somebody’s always going to have something to say, regardless of where you’re at. I’m sure guys are saying something now about Tom Brady. It’s always something.’’

The NFL is full of cautionary tales about gifted players who were filtered out for reasons that had nothing to do with talent. Mooney’s story is the opposite. It’s an illustration of how to set oneself apart in a hyper-competitive field in which being fast and strong are musts just to get in the door.

Everybody has those qualities, but not everybody knows how to use them.

Case in point: As a rookie, Mooney immediately overtook Anthony Miller. Miller was every bit his equal physically, but he was known for his shaky grasp of the playbook; his coaches said it publicly. Meanwhile, the staff immediately raved about how Mooney mastered it.

‘‘If you don’t know what’s going on out there, you really can’t move as fast as you want to,” Mooney said. “If you’re messing up mentally, it’s going to be tough at any job you want to do in life.’’

Mooney said he learned that professionalism in high school. But his coach, Matt Scott, said: ‘‘He was already like that. . . . I trusted Darnell as much as I trusted the coaches.’’

Confidence is another factor. While Mooney always has faced doubt from the outside, saying college and pro teams misjudged him as ‘‘too small and fragile,’’ his belief in himself never wavered. Breaking 1,000 yards last season and taking over as the Bears’ top receiver emboldened him further.

‘‘Close to the end of last year, I felt like: ‘All right, I’m here now. Y’all gotta deal with me,’ ’’ Mooney said. ‘‘Now it’s kind of a reset: Prove yourself all over. I think that’s gonna be an every-year thing. But I’m gonna be ready.’’

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