The emergence of rookie fifth-round draft pick Darnell Mooney has been among the most pleasant surprises for the Bears this season.
The receiver from Tulane has developed into a dangerous deep threat and key contributor in the passing game, recording 31 receptions for 348 yards and two touchdowns in his first nine NFL games.
"It's not a secret anymore, the ability and skill-set that this young man possesses," said Bears receivers coach Mike Furrey. "He's obviously done enough and has proven enough that he can definitely be successful in NFL games as we get the ball in his hands."
When the Bears traded up in the fifth round of this year's draft to select Mooney with the 173rd overall pick, they knew they were landing a fast and productive receiver. The 5-11, 174-pounder was a four-year starter at Tulane who ran a blazing 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
What sets Mooney apart from other naturally-gifted young players, however, is his maturity, mentality and work ethic.
"Nothing fazes this kid," Furrey said. "It's amazing the attribute that he has where he doesn't get high, he doesn't get low. He literally has a focus where, mentally, he knows what he's doing. I don't think he's had any MAs (missed assignments) over the last four or five weeks. Really, it's hard for me to say an MA he's had this season."
Mooney's performance as a rookie is even more impressive given that all offseason practices and preseason games were cancelled due to COVID-19. In the spring, when Halas Hall was closed and the Bears were conducting their offseason program entirely on a virtual basis, Mooney headed to a turf field near his New Orleans home to apply what he was learning in Zoom meetings.
"I record myself saying plays, all the plays we have installed," Mooney said at the time. "I have my headphones in and I'll go to a field and act like I'm in a huddle and hear the play call and just line up and go."
Mooney did more than just run routes during his daily workouts. He also caught passes from his quarterback at Gadsden High School in Alabama, Ahmad DeRamus, who spent the past four years playing at Tuskegee University, where he was named conference MVP in 2018.
After being drafted by the Bears, Mooney's first purchase wasn't a fancy car or a designer suit, but a JUGS machine that he could use to hone his receiving skills.
Mooney's intensive preparation enabled him to hit the ground running when he reported to Halas Hall for the start of training camp in late July.
"I love his ability and I love the way he approaches the game," said Bears passing game coordinator Dave Ragone. "I made the comment [previously] that he didn't feel like a rookie to me. Nothing has changed there.
"He just gets it, and when rookies just get it, you feel like the game is never going to be too big for him. Or the moment. Or what they're asked to do. He's done everything we've asked him to do, and he can get better and better. And he knows that. It's just great watching him grow."
“It’s not a secret anymore, the ability and skill-set that this young man possesses.” Bears receivers coach Mike Furrey on rookie Darnell Mooney
Mooney was the 25th receiver selected in this year's draft. Entering Week 10, he's tied for fourth in receptions and is seventh in yards in that group. Among 21 rookie draft picks who have at least 10 receptions, Mooney is the only one who was chosen later than the fourth round.
Speed is clearly one of Mooney's most significant traits, and it's a weapon he knows how to utilize—something he showed Nov. 1 against the Saints on a 50-yard reception, the Bears' longest play from scrimmage this season. But the rookie possesses other impressive attributes as well.
"He has the ability to use his speed efficiently," Ragone said. "Some guys are fast in this league. They come in with a reputation of being fast and sometimes you just don't feel them when they're out there running. Maybe because they're thinking. Or maybe because there's another object in front of them. And they're just not sure how to get around it.
"You don't feel that with Mooney. You feel a guy who understands and knows his speed. He can feel spatial awareness. But it's not like he's just a one-trick guy who can just go deep. I think you've seen it in the intermediate cuts, the contested catches. I know I am beyond excited that he's part of this football team."