Is this the end for Darnell Mooney and the Chicago Bears?

Mooney could become a free agent in March

Cleveland Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II watches as Chicago Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney looses control of a Hail Marry pass at the end of the game, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Cleveland.

LAKE FOREST – One moment could have changed everything. Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney had the football within his grasp, almost resting on his stomach, for a sliver of an instant.

Justin Fields’ last-second Hail Mary heave at the end of a Dec. 17 matchup against the Cleveland Browns bounced around before falling into Mooney’s lap – and then bouncing off of him, too, before a Browns defender snagged it for an interception.

The Bears lost, blowing a double-digit lead for the third time this season. That play could’ve changed everything. The Bears have won their two games since then and have won four of five. Had they not blown that lead in Cleveland, they might be competing for a playoff spot this Sunday in Green Bay.

Instead, it was another gut-wrenching loss.

In the visiting locker room at Cleveland Browns Stadium that day, Mooney knew he was being blasted on social media.

“Everybody’s killing me right now, but it was a difficult catch,” Mooney said.

He later added: “It’s unfortunate. It shouldn’t have to come down to those things.”

Still, his wide receiver coach Tyke Tolbert later said Mooney “should’ve caught it.”

“The still picture, everybody and their mom is saying, ‘Oh, I can catch that,’” Tolbert said. “Yeah, until you’re out there trying to do it. But with Mooney, I expect Mooney – any time the ball hit him in the hands – to catch it.”

For the 26-year-old receiver, there have probably been other frustrating moments in 2023. He entered this season in the final year of his rookie contract. When training camp began, he was peppered with questions from members of the media about a potential long-term extension.

At least publicly, Mooney said he paid that no mind. He said he lets his agent handle the business side of things. Mooney has been a fixture of the Bears’ wide receiver room since they drafted him with a fifth-round pick in 2020.

He emerged as a surprise breakout player during his rookie season, then totaled 1,055 receiving yards in 2021. Last year, he was the Bears’ leading receiver – with 40 catches for 493 yards and two touchdowns – before an ankle injury ended his season five games early.

In 2023, the addition of star receiver DJ Moore has completely changed the equation for the Bears. Moore has 1,300 receiving yards and eats up many of the targets. The Bears’ offense has struggled to consistently feed Mooney, who has 31 receptions for 414 yards and one touchdown in 15 games.

At times, it may have appeared like he and Fields weren’t always on the same page.

“I can see where those who were here before I got here and see the production Mooney’s had in the past, I can see why you’d think that way,” Tolbert said. “But again, I think what’s important for us is when you have more weapons, you don’t have to rely on one guy. I mean, Mooney was like the weapon for the Bears for a long time, before I got here. But now, we’ve got more weapons.”

Tolbert believes the Bears offense has a lot of mouths to feed between Moore, Mooney and tight end Cole Kmet. That, of course, is a good problem to have.

But it also raises the question of whether Mooney will be back next season at all. With free agency approaching in March, Sunday’s matchup with Green Bay could be Mooney’s final game with the Bears. Mooney was in concussion protocol this week and was unavailable for comment with the media.

“I just think that the consistency of him coming in each day, knowing what you’re going to get, that type of guy will definitely be missed if he is gone,” rookie receiver Tyler Scott said.

I just think that consistency of him coming in each day, knowing what you’re going to get, that type of guy will definitely be missed if he is gone.”

—  Tyler Scott, Bears receiver

Scott, whose locker is beside Mooney’s at Halas Hall, said the No. 1 thing he has learned from Mooney during his rookie season is to enjoy his time with his teammates.

“Appreciate the locker room and appreciate the guys that you do it with every day,” Scott said. “Things may go your way, things may not go your way. At the end of the day, you’re blessed to be in this position.”

Moore noted that Mooney was the one who helped him learn the playbook when the Bears traded for him in March.

“Mooney is somebody that works hard, goes about his business and understands the game of football very well and he was a help to me this year,” Moore said. “Shoot, just helping me get along with everybody and integrating into the offense.”

There’s certainly no guarantee that Mooney will be gone. The Bears could bring him back, but it’s a matter of what both sides want. Last month, Pro Football Focus projected Mooney to earn a one-year, $9 million contract on the open market. The Bears definitely have the financial flexibility to keep him at a price like that, but the question is whether there’s a team out there that might give Mooney multiple years.

There is, also, a draft looming that is considered loaded at the wide receiver position. ESPN currently ranks three receiver prospects inside its top 10, and six in the top 32. With two first-round picks, the Bears have a chance to find a difference-maker at the position, whether that be Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. at the top, or someone else further down the order.

The Bears will have plenty of questions to answer in the offseason, and Mooney’s future is one of them.

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Shaw Local News Network. He has covered the Bears since 2020. Prior to writing about the Bears, he covered high school sports for the Northwest Herald and contributed to Friday Night Drive. Sean joined Shaw Media in 2016.