LAKE FOREST – In all honesty, Bears head coach Matt Nagy wasn’t sure how Darnell Mooney would hold up as last year’s Week 1 game against Detroit neared.
“He aced that test,” Nagy said this week.
Mooney caught three passes for 38 yards in his debut. The fifth-round draft pick from Tulane caught his first NFL touchdown pass a week later in the home opener at Soldier Field in Chicago. Nagy and his coaching staff quickly realized that they weren’t overloading Mooney.
The now 23-year-old could handle it.
“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.”
Mooney set the Bears rookie record with 61 receptions, breaking a record set by Harlon Hill in 1954. Any time a player breaks a half-century-old record, that means he’s doing something right.
Mooney said Wednesday after OTAs that his coaches told him he “exceeded expectations” in 2020. But that’s not to say that he exceeded his own expectations.
“I didn’t exceed everything that I wanted to accomplish,” Mooney said. “Going into year two, I just want to be more of a threat to defenders and more of an asset to this team.”
Mooney emerged last season as the clear No. 2 receiver behind veteran Allen Robinson. Mooney finished the year with 631 receiving yards and four touchdowns to go along with his 61 receptions. Robinson is the clear top dog in the Bears wide receivers room, but Mooney is a dangerous weapon in his own right.
He did it last season in a number of different ways. He was a weapon deep down field, but he also flashed his elite speed after the catch on shorter passes. He caught multiple passes in all 16 regular season games, including a career-high 11 in the regular season finale against Green Bay.
Bears receivers coach Mike Furrey said that Mooney is blocking out what people say about his potential. Mooney doesn’t want to hear others’ opinions about how good he could be next season.
“A lot of people have told him what his potential is, how he can accomplish this and accomplish that,” Furrey said. “And I think right now it’s going to be just erasing the potential and really just becoming what he can become with his mindset, maturity, his discipline, who he is as a person.”
Nagy wants to see Mooney take his understanding of football concepts to the next level. Mooney was a player who knew his routes well in 2020. In 2021, it’s going to be about knowing entire plays, knowing what all 11 offensive players are doing and why.
When Nagy was an up-and-coming coach with the Philadelphia Eagles from 2008-12, he learned a lot from then-Eagles receivers coach David Culley – now the Houston Texans’ head coach.
“Culley, when he was in Philadelphia, talked about Terrell Owens, and T.O. always knowing, he always knew the whole play,” Nagy said. “He knew when he was getting the ball pre-snap and he knew when he wasn’t getting the ball. And so I think taking it to that level for Darnell is going to be really important.”
Nagy saw Mooney adjusting his routes against certain coverages last year. Now it will be about seeing the whole play before it happens. Having a year of NFL experience under his belt will be key.
“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.”