When Bears general manager Ryan Pace mentioned rookie receiver Darnell Mooney as a player he expects to take a big step in 2021, it wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky notion based mostly on hope — if not desperation — after a disappointing season.
The Mooney projection is based on actual results on multiple levels. A fifth-round draft pick emerging as a productive receiver in a bad offense with substandard quarterbacks is a pretty legitimate indicator that the Bears have something — and potentially something special.
After a disjointed, virtual introduction to the league because of coronavirus restrictions — from rookie camp to a training camp without preseason games — Mooney showed a knack for picking up the nuances of the NFL game that paid off on game day. He caught 61 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns in an offense that ranked 26th in the NFL in yards, 22nd in passing yards and 22nd in scoring, with Mitch Trubisky (93.5) ranking 20th in passer rating and Nick Foles (80.8) ranking 29th.
Mooney’s consistency in an often-stagnant offense was impressive. He caught two or more passes in every game and had a season-high 11 receptions for 93 yards against the Packers in Week 17 before suffering an ankle injury that kept him out of the Bears’ playoff game against the Saints.
Yet another indicator Mooney might have staying power: While his impressive speed is his forte, his rookie success wasn’t all about speed, speed and more speed. In fact, his route-running, vision, discipline, ability to learn and knack for making the most of shorter pass plays seemed just as big a part of his success.
‘‘You continue to see how comfortable he is and how much the game has slowed down for him from a visual standpoint,’’ Bears receivers coach Mike Furrey said after Mooney turned a short pass into a 12-yard touchdown with a nifty move to the pylon in a 36-7 victory against the Texans in December at Soldier Field. ‘‘When you watch his route-running now, that’s been a huge progression that he’s had throughout the season in regards to just how patient he is now, using his speed as a threat, pushing his depths, not trying to rush stuff.’’
Mooney followed that up with 19 receptions for 181 yards and a touchdown in the last three regular-season games of the season. He was fifth in receptions and seventh in yards among rookie receivers in 2020, but every receiver in front of him was drafted in the first or second round.
‘‘You have a rookie in this league, and the game is so fast to him that you try to speed stuff up,’’ Furrey said. ‘‘When you look at him in regards to maturity and the growth of his game, the way he’s slowed the game down and the patience he has in his route-running are way beyond [his] years.’’
When Pace was asked where the Bears’ upgrades have come this offseason, he was a little stumped. Quarterback Andy Dalton has better career numbers than Trubisky or Foles, but not recently. Cornerback Desmond Trufant is a former Pro Bowl player with a legitimate résumé as a starter, but he’s not an on-paper upgrade over Kyle Fuller. After that, it was all complementary/supporting players who ‘‘addressed a lot of needs’’: defensive end Angelo Blackson, linebackers Jeremiah Attaochu and Christian Jones, guard/tackle Elijah Wilkinson and running back Damien Williams.
But, as Pace pointed out, he still has the draft (eight picks currently) and the internal upgrades of development.
‘‘Guys like Jaylon Johnson and Cole Kmet, Darnell Mooney, James Daniels, David Montgomery,’’ Pace said. ‘‘[If] those guys continue to grow, that bodes well for the Bears.’’
Internal upgrades from players already on the roster likely will have to be a big part of any improvement from 8-8. And, like Mooney, expecting improvement from Johnson, Kmet, Daniels and Montgomery is based on 2020 performance, not the blind hope that Arlington Hambright or Kindle Vildor will go from a bit piece to a productive starter.
Here’s a look at four other in-house players who can give the Bears upgrades over 2020:
CB Jaylon Johnson
The second-round pick last year from Utah (50th overall) was a Week 1 starter, had the game-clinching pass breakup in the opener against the Lions and was solid all season, despite some rookie moments. He finished with 15 pass breakups — tied for ninth in the NFL — despite missing the last three games of the regular season with a shoulder injury.
TE Cole Kmet
Though his rookie numbers were modest — 28 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns — the second-round pick from Notre Dame (43rd overall) was hardly a disappointment, showing plenty of evidence of room for growth. He finished strong once the Bears’ offense started to look for him, with seven receptions for 41 yards in Week 17 against the Packers.
G/C James Daniels
The 2018 second-round pick from Iowa (39th overall) was likely the Bears’ best offensive lineman when he suffered a season-ending torn chest muscle in Week 5 against the Buccaneers. Still only 23 entering his fourth season, Daniels has yet to play a full season at one position and figures to improve as he presumably settles in at left guard in 2021.
NT Eddie Goldman
He will return in 2021 after opting out of the 2020 season because of coronavirus concerns. The Bears missed his presence in the middle — they dropped from ninth to 15th in rushing yards allowed and from sixth to ninth in rushing yards per carry — and his return will allow Bilal Nichols to play exclusively at end after helping to fill the hole at nose tackle in 2020.