The Bears unearthed a gem in the fifth round of last year's NFL Draft in Darnell Mooney. But even after a record-setting rookie year, the speedy receiver from Tulane is aiming even higher entering his second NFL season.
"[Bears coaches] told me that I exceeded expectations and that I played very well," Mooney said Wednesday during a Zoom call with the media. "To me, I didn't exceed everything that I wanted to accomplish. Going into Year 2, I just want to be more of a threat to defenders and more of an asset to this team."
Last season Mooney set a Bears record for receptions by a rookie wide receiver, catching 61 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns. Appearing in all 16 games with nine starts, he emerged as a dependable second option at the receiver position behind veteran Allen Robinson II.
In the season finale against the Packers, Mooney established career highs with 11 receptions and 93 yards. But the 5-11, 174-pounder suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter that kept him from playing a week later in the Bears' wild card playoff loss to the Saints.
Mooney's emergence as a rookie was even more impressive given that it came after all offseason practices and preseason games were cancelled due to COVID-19.
"The thing that stood out to me was his durability, up until that last game there when he got hurt," said coach Matt Nagy. "He got hurt with extra effort in that previous game, so you love that about him. He's really tough."
The Bears liked what they saw from Mooney in training camp. But with no preseason games, they really didn't know what to expect heading into their season opener against the Lions.
"We weren't sure going into that Detroit game how he was going to be able to hold up physically and mentally," Nagy said. "I'd say the very first thing is that he aced that test."
Mooney's playing time steadily increased throughout the season. He played 32, 60, 62 and 74 percent of the Bears' offensive snaps the first four weeks and later lined up for at least 74 percent of the snaps in nine straight games from Weeks 7-16.
"We just kept giving him more and more and more," Nagy said. "Now it's our job to make sure that as we go into this season, we make sure that he gets a lot of opportunities.
"He's a threat in this offense, and what he's doing out here right now in OTAs, he's literally gotten even better. He has that inner drive. It's that DNA thing that not everybody has. But he has it and we're lucky."
As Mooney gains more experience, the Bears are confident that he'll develop a deeper understanding of the game.
"Last year he really knew his route," Nagy said. "Now I want him to know the whole concept within the play. I always remember coach [David] Culley when he was in Philadelphia talking about Terrell Owens and T.O. always knowing the whole play. He knew when he was getting the ball pre-snap and he knew when he wasn't getting the ball.
"I think taking it to that level for Darnell is going to be really important, and I'm seeing him adjust his routes to certain coverages. He did that last year, but now it's going to be, 'Hey, pre-snap, I know I'm getting this football.' And that's really what we want all of our wideouts and tight ends to get to."
“I didn’t exceed everything that I wanted to accomplish [in 2020]. Going into Year 2, I just want to be more of a threat to defenders and more of an asset to this team.” Bears WR Darnell Mooney
Mooney has already found that the reps he's taking in OTA practices this spring are helping him understand coverages.
"Sometimes before the play even happens, I can see a play out of my head and then see a defender's body language and understand the defense a little," Mooney said. "It is extremely [beneficial] to be able to have that experience."
Check out Wednesday's action from the practice fields as the Bears continued the second week of Organized Team Activities at Halas Hall.