With just 11 days remaining until the first Sunday slate of the NFL season, today's installment of Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff brings us to the life and career of the best player in franchise history to don the number 11, wide receiver Darnell Mooney.
Tulane Star Darnell Mooney Joins Chicago Bears in 2020 NFL Draft
Hailing originally from Gadsden, Alabama, Darnell Mooney's athletic career began at Gadsen City High School. There, Mooney was a dominant force on both his school's football and basketball teams and helped each squad reach the state championship multiple times.
On the gridiron, Mooney was a do-it-all player who starred as a receiver, as a defensive back, and as a returner on special teams. His best season came as a senior, where he recorded nearly 700 yards and nine touchdowns on offense while adding four return touchdowns on special teams and an interception on defense. He helped the team reach two state playoff appearances en route to being named a First-Team All-State player in his senior season.
On the basketball court, Mooney led the team as an athletic point guard, and helped his team reach the playoffs in each of his three final seasons.
Despite having real talent as a distributor on the court, it was apparent that Mooney's best sport was football, but the receiver had a tough time gaining recognition from the biggest college recruiting platforms. Nonetheless, the Alabama native elected to accept a scholarship from the relatively nearby Tulane University.
Upon joining the Green Wave ahead of the 2016 season, Mooney began as a depth receiver, but quickly worked his way into the starting lineup for the team's final eight contests. There, the receiver finished the season second on the team in receptions (24), yards (267), and touchdowns (2).
From then on, Mooney served as a starter every season, and played in all 38 possible contests, including both of their Bowl wins following the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In both seasons, Mooney finished with exactly 48 receptions, although his junior season was certainly his best in college.
Finishing the 2018 campaign with 993 yards and eight touchdowns, both career highs, Mooney was named to the All-AAC team after his breakout season. By the end of his collegiate career, Mooney's 2,572 receiving yards marked the sixth most all-time in program history, with his touchdown total of 19 serving as the eighth most.
Following the end of his collegiate career, Mooney turned his focus to the ensuing 2020 NFL Draft. Despite flashing extreme athleticism during his Tulane career and the pre-draft process, Mooney was not considered a top receiver of his class. During the draft, Mooney would not end up being one of the first 25 wide receivers, but he finally found a professional home when the Chicago Bears selected him with the 173rd overall pick during the fifth round.
Darnell Mooney's Time with the Chicago Bears So Far
To set the scene, Mooney joined the Chicago Bears ahead of what would be Matt Nagy's penultimate season with the team. The addition of Mooney was a clear step in trying to assist the offense in catching up with the defensive talent on the roster, including Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Roquan Smith, just to name a few.
Mooney began as a backup receiver, but in an offensive that lacked consistent playmakers for Mitchell Trubisky to work with, the Tulane product was able to play in all 16 games throughout the regular season, even starting in nine contests throughout the year. He finished his rookie campaign with 631 yards and four touchdowns and served as a nice compliment to veteran Allen Robinson, who led the team in receiving yards.
The Bears finished the year with an 8-8 record and barely sneaked into the playoffs, where they faced off against the New Orleans Saints, who stifled an inconsistent Chicago offense. Unfortunately, an ankle injury during the last game of the regular season forced Mooney to miss the team's Wildcard appearance.
The next season, Mooney earned a larger share of the offensive snaps, and he quickly became the team's leading receiver, finishing the year with 1,055 yards. Working with new quarterback Justin Fields, Mooney helped initiate a youth movement, especially on the offense. Including Mooney, many of the playmakers that Fields had to work with were still young enough to be on their rookie contracts, like tight end Cole Kmet and running back David Montgomery.
Accordingly, Mooney phased into the team's lead receiver role despite being a second-year, former fifth-round pick. By the end of the season, where Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace were replaced by Matt Eberflus and Ryan Poles, respectively, the team chose not to bring back Robinson, making Mooney the de facto number one receiver for a young Fields.
Last year, Mooney played precisely that role and was Fields' primary target in his first year as a full-time starter. Unfortunately, the receiver missed significant time due to injury and was only able to play in 12 of the team's games. Between the acquisition of Chase Claypool and the apparent tanking near the end of the season, the team was in no rush to bring back Mooney before fully recovering, but now, the receiver is fully healthy and primed to start in his fourth professional season.
Expectation for Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears Heading into 2023 Season
With the regular season around the corner and teams preparing to finalize their 53-man rosters, rumors swirl of Mooney's potential availability. Both Mooney and Claypool are currently entering the final seasons of their contract, and while neither player was drafted by the current regime, they did give up serious draft capital to acquire the former Steeler. Between these two players, it would probably be more likely to see Mooney be the one traded, but frankly, I believe that they will choose to hold on to the ascending deep-threat target.
The team wants to surround Fields with weapons, and a variety of weapons for that matter. The addition of D.J. Moore will likely take a lot of attention away from Mooney, allowing the speeding, athletic receiver to potentially specialize more as a vertical threat. But, if the team, and the offense specifically, want to take major steps this season as they continue their rebuild, the chemistry between Mooney and Fields may be a crucial factor.
Thankfully, it seems that both players are on the same page, as the two have reportedly spent an immense amount of time training together since the end of the 2022 season. Returning to full health, it would be great to see Mooney surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in his career, but he has the potential to be even more productive than that.
Hopefully, the 2023 campaign will prove to be a healthy and successful one for Mooney and the team, but heading into his contract season, it would not be surprising to see the former fifth-round pick try to prove to the Bears and the NFL just how much he is worth.