There’s nothing quite like a speedster at receiver in football. No one else forces a defense to stay on its toes as much a player who can break its integrity in the blink of an eye. No one else can humiliate all 11 defenders seemingly as they please. They are home-run threats who, with their presence alone, make defensive coordinators lose countless hours of sleep. They are invaluable not-so-secret weapons of which you can often only hope, only pray, to stop.
The Bears were in dire need of speed on the outside. After the departure of one Taylor Gabriel, Matt Nagy’s crew was left with a cadre of possession receivers and little else to maintain passing diversity. Their passing playbook, while somewhat attractive on paper with options like Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller in the fold, was limited in its overall scope. A defense must assuredly be concerned with what Robinson and company are capable of, but a familiar existential dread of one player losing focus for a split second and it costing everything wasn’t present. That is, until Tulane’s Darnell Mooney has his say.
One of college football’s premier big play threats over the last few seasons, Mooney brings quite the understated resume to Chicago. I spoke with Underdog Dynasty’s Steve Helwick to get a more nuanced idea of Mooney’s potential impact, and how soon he may be humiliating respective cornerbacks around the NFL.
1. As one of the more productive players in program history, Darnell Mooney made a name for himself over 41 straight starts at Tulane. Aside from consistent top-draft pick level statistics, what factors would you attribute to his flying under the radar? How would you describe his collegiate career in a nutshell?
Steve Helwick: Darnell Mooney flew under the radar at Tulane because there hasn’t been much buzz about Tulane football since the 1990s. Before Mooney and head coach Willie Fritz arrived on campus in 2016, Tulane’s only bowl appearance since 2003 was a 2013 New Orleans Bowl loss. But the state of the program is sharply improving in Fritz’s tenure. The Green Wave brand is growing after consecutive bowl wins, a recently-built stadium, and the upgrade to the American Conference.
Mooney’s college career is best summarized as being a key cog in redefining Tulane football. When he started 13 games at wide receiver in 2019, Tulane’s scoring offense ranked 30th in the FBS, the first time its offense has been ranked in the top half of college football since 2004. Mooney allowed the Green Wave to open up the aerial attack down the field, create significant gains, and execute on high-reward plays. With tremendous speed and the ability to break away from defenders immediately after the snap, Mooney averaged nearly 18 yards per catch in his last two seasons. A four-year starter, he’ll leave behind a legacy of turning around Tulane’s offense, one big play at a time.
2. What are Mooney’s strengths and weaknesses as a player? Where could he stand to improve, and where in the details is he ahead of the curve as a budding professional? What’s a solid professional comparison for his skill-set, in your mind?
SH: Speed is Mooney’s forte, as demonstrated by his sub-4.40 40 time at this year’s NFL Combine. After the snap, he is capable of exploding in an instant. This made him lethal in one-on-one coverage against most college cornerbacks. One other aspect of Mooney’s game that always stuck with me was his tendency to give defensive backs the “You Got Mossed” treatment, especially on deep passes toward the end zone. A Mooney highlight that especially resonates was a 48-yard contested touchdown reception last September against Houston, arguably Tulane’s most memorable victory of the 2010s. While working primarily from the slot in college, he was able to draw countless mismatches. Even on underthrown passes, he manages to time his jump perfectly and rip the ball away from the defender.
Where Mooney seemed to be a complete receiver at Tulane with an impressive combination of speed, vertical leap, and corralling footballs in traffic, there’s still more he must improve at the NFL level. There’s a difference between the strength to rip the ball away from defensive backs in college, like Mooney possesses, and the strength to serve as an effective blocker and to shed off stronger, more physical defensive backs in the NFL. Mooney will need work in this aspect. Also, many of Mooney’s routes in college were vertical routes, with the occasional slant worked in. He’ll have to become a stronger and more versatile route runner in order for offenses to maximize his full potential as a receiver.
For a solid professional comparison, my initial reaction was Taylor Gabriel, the player he was drafted to replace in Chicago. But, a better comparison to Mooney (5-foot-10, 176 pounds) is former Texas Tech wide receiver Keke Coutee (5-foot-10, 180 pounds). The two shared a similar play-style in college. Now Coutee, a 2018 fourth-round pick, is thriving as a backup receiver for the Texans.
3. It’s been a long time since Tulane produced a solid NFL starter. In fact, the last and one of the only times in recent decades that they did, it was Matt Forte, who also happened to play for the Bears. How does Mooney distinguish himself from many of the other Green Wave prospects over the years? How can he, while 12 years apart, at entirely different positions, and in entirely different league landscapes, carve out even close to the kind of career that Forte had? (If at all?)
SH: Matt Forte is an incredibly high standard to hold for any incoming rookie. He was several games shy of joining the 10,000-yard rushing club, an exclusive group which only holds 31 NFL players in history. To add to that, he was probably the best pass-catching halfback of the 2010s outside of Darren Sproles. Matt Fortes don’t grow on trees every draft.
Mooney is a fifth-round pick, which is usually safe territory to qualify for the 53-man roster. But fifth-round picks typically ride a volatile path after their rookie seasons. In order to create a distinguishable career, he’ll have to execute when given the opportunity, and preseason is especially valuable to receivers buried in a crowded depth chart. Mooney will shine brightest in preseason if he is given the opportunity to take on cornerbacks in press coverage on deep routes. Even if the throws aren’t perfect, Mooney’s ability to adjust to throws and time his jumps is high-caliber. If his coaches take note of that, he’ll find his way onto the field quicker. The Bears haven’t had sustained elite receiving talent in a while, but the duo of Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller (who battled Mooney twice in college) should be a solid, relatively young group for Mooney to learn from. After examining Chicago’s depth chart, his game most likely mirrors recent Bears signee Ted Ginn Jr.. The additions of Ginn and Mooney should heavy, welcome doses of speed into that receiving room.
4. You’re wearing a headset as a member of the Bears’ offensive coaching staff. How do you deploy Mooney? Where is he best used schematically and situationally in Chicago’s offense as a rookie?
SH: Special teams seems like a common area to utilize a fifth-round rookie receiver, but Tulane seldom used Mooney there the past four years. Despite his impressive speed and catching ability, Mooney never fielded kickoffs or punts. I’m not sure if the Bears will attempt to work him onto special teams. Besides that, Tarik Cohen and Cordarrelle Patterson are the premier kickoff and punt return specialist duo in the NFL. He faces a tall order to fit in on the third phase. Schematically, he fits best as a slot receiver in the offense. He most frequently lined up in the slot for snaps at Tulane, which drew slews of mismatches with outside linebackers and strong safeties. It’s a strategic way to utilize a receiver with as much speed and athleticism as Mooney.
5. With Mooney moving on to greener, bigger professional pastures, what’s one unique or unknown story that encapsulates his stint with Tulane?
SH: While I covered several American Conference games last year, I never met Mooney or received the opportunity to cover him live at Tulane. But I watched plenty of Green Wave football over the years, and Mooney’s magnum opus was his game at East Carolina in 2018.
Mooney caught two touchdowns that afternoon, one of 86 yards and another of 79 — both of them by defeating a defender on the same quick slant route from the slot. Overall, Mooney finished this game in New Orleans with six receptions, 217 receiving yards, and a pair of scores in a 24-18 win. Tulane improved to .500 and qualified for their second bowl game since 2003 a week later. By remaining on track for bowl eligibility, Mooney’s performance against East Carolina eventually led to Tulane breaking its 16-year bowl victory drought.
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