New Bears GM Ryan Poles admitted recently that while he wants to give Justin Fields everything he can in order to have a successful season.
But, to this point, we’ve watched wide receivers fly off the board since the NFL’s free agency period opened a few weeks ago, with the Bears watching from the sideline as the pricey game of musical chairs played out in front of them with none of the big names coming to Chicago.
Thus leaving Darnell Mooney, Dazz Newsome, Isaiah Coulter, Nsimba Webster, newcomers Byron Pringle, and Equanimeous St. Brown as Fields’ top receivers. Those are names. And bodies. But it feels like something is missing. More specifically, a WR1 who Fields can lean on in tough times. The type of player Poles was hinting at acquiring earlier on the offseason, but has yet to bring into Halas Hall.
But maybe that player is already in Chicago.
There’s a reasonably strong belief that Mooney is not a WR1. But why can’t Mooney be that guy?
Mooney Just Had a Breakout Season and is Primed For Another
As a rookie in 2020, Mooney hauled in 61 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles slinging it. And despite the situation around him not getting much better in 2021, Mooney made strides across the board in year two. And it led to a breakthrough season.
Mooney, 24, is fresh off of an 81 catch, 1,055-yard sophomore season in the NFL. Given no context, that’s good work. But given the context of Andy Dalton, Nick Foles, and rookie Fields throwing him the ball in Matt Nagy’s offense, I’d say that those numbers in the circumstances are reason enough to believe that Mooney can continue to blossom into the No. 1 target in Chicago.
It was an eye-opening year for Mooney. His targets jumped from 98 to 140, which represents a 43 percent increase. Along with the volume of targets, Mooney’s catches increased by 20 and receiving yards went up 67 percent — all, with Fields under center for just 11 games. With Fields getting a full share of the snaps, Mooney should see even more growth in 2022. As Jeff Hughes of Da Bears Blog points out, Mooney will be in line for a 107-catch, 1,266-yard season if he sees increases of just 20 percent in those categories.
That seems like a WR1 to me.
The Fields-Mooney Connection
With the tools, the development from year one to year two, the trust of his quarterback, and a new (and hopefully improved) offense being installed, why are we placing a ceiling on what Mooney can be for this Bears team?
JUSTIN FIELDS AND DARNELL MOONEY CAN’T BE STOPPED
— PFF (@PFF) October 3, 2021
FIELDS 2 MOONEY. https://t.co/mlDsJfSksk
— Bleacher Nation Bears (@BN_Bears) October 17, 2021
Fields has already latched onto Mooney’s as his No. 1 target, which might be the most important factor in Mooney taking another step forward. The two putting in work on their own time has been a thing since Fields arrived for camp last summer and has continued into this summer.
“Me and Mooney, we stay almost every day after practice to throw at least a few extra routes,” Fields said. “So me and him are pretty much always on the same page.”
And it has extended into this offseason:
Darnell Mooney is wasting no time getting back in the lab with Justin Fields. 🐻⬇️ pic.twitter.com/J6Gg2tJA2Y
— Bleacher Nation Bears (@BN_Bears) January 9, 2022
— Dr. Michael Tal Risher (@DrRisher) March 17, 2022
— Coach Simeon “Steamin Willie Beamen” Kelley (@SirSimeonKelley) March 29, 2022
You Don’t Need to be a First-Round Pick or the Highest-Paid to be WR1
Plenty of top receivers in the league don’t walk into the building as The Man at wide receiver.
For instance, Chris Godwin was a third-rounder in 2017 who didn’t have his first 80-catch, 1,000-yard season until his third year in the NFL. Christian Kirk just got PAID to be WR1 in Jacksonville, and none of his four seasons in the NFL were as statistically successful as Mooney’s sophomore campaign. Kirk’s 77 catches and 982 yards in 2021 were career-bests, and Jacksonville gave him a four-year, $72 million deal to be their top pass-catching target for Trevor Lawrence.
So, tell me again, why Darnell Mooney can’t be a No. 1?
Davante Adams was a second-rounder out of Fresno State. Jordy Nelson was a second-round selection from Kansas State. It didn’t stop either of them from tormenting the Bears and other secondaries around the league. Cooper Kupp was a third-rounder who played collegiately at Eastern Washington. Tyreek Hill is often championed as a late-round steal as a fifth-round pick, but his draft stock fell due to off-the-field concerns. Nevertheless, there are players who rise to the top of their position groups. Perhaps a 2020 fifth-round pick from Tulane can follow in those footstops.
After all, Brad Gagnon notes in a Bleacher Report piece from 2015 that first-round receivers had the lowest Pro Bowl rate of any position. And that Round 1 wideouts had the fourth-highest bust rate. All this to say that there are no layups just because a player is a first-round pick.
But There’s a But…
Of course, the Mooney glow-up and growth into WR1 status all fine and dandy in theory. But there are no guarantees.
There is no guarantee that Fields and Mooney will be healthy all season. And that is a primary sticking point, especially since injuries cut Fields’ rookie season short. There is also a a new offense being installed, other pieces moving around that are coming into place, and other factors out of anyone’s control. And that’s before we even consider luck. We’ve still got a ways to go before anyone shows up to training camp this summer.
In the end, placing a WR2 ceiling on a third-year wideout as talented as Darnell Mooney seems incredibly short-sighted to me.
So, again, I ask — why can’t Darnell Mooney be a WR1?
Luis Medina contributed to this post.