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10 Bears with the most to prove in 2023: Darnell Mooney

The popular Chicago Bears wide receiver is in a contract year in a suddenly crowded wide receiver room

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Our series rolls along as we look at the 10 Chicago Bears with the most on the line this season. So far we’ve discussed why Kindle Vildor, Braxton Jones, Velus Jones and Trevis Gipson all have huge seasons in front of them, and this particular player does as well.

6. Darnell Mooney

I have a feeling plenty of Windy City Gridiron readers saw this article headline, rolled their eyes, and said, “Here goes Zimmerman again.” But if you don’t think this season is critical for Darnell Mooney, you aren’t paying attention.

First of all, like it has been with multiple people on this list (and more to come), Mooney is in a contract year. The Bears could absolutely extend Mooney prior to the season. He’s been a great teammate, he has a great relationship with Justin Fields, and when he’s on the field, he has flashed some significant skill at the wide receiver position.

If Mooney is extended prior to the start of the season, this season becomes far less critical for him, but it will still be an important season for him regardless. Mooney has to prove that he’s the receiver most of us believe he can be, and he needs to help Fields elevate the passing game to a viable NFL level.

If Mooney plays in 2023 without an extension, he is, in essence, going to be in competition with Chase Claypool for a contract extension. With DJ Moore now in Chicago as WR1, the odds the Bears pay three wide receivers substantial contracts falls somewhere between slim and none. The Bears will certainly commit to 1 of them, but it just wouldn’t make sense with Tyler Scott and Velus Jones on rookie deals to pay three receivers.

Mooney certainly has the inside track over Claypool to see that extension, but Claypool has the talent to potentially show why the Bears should commit to him. Ryan Poles gave up what became the 32nd pick to land Claypool. So while Mooney has the time in Chicago and the relationship with Fields to have the inside track, it will certainly weigh on Poles mind that if he lets Claypool walk, he will have traded a significant amount of draft capital for less than two seasons of Claypool’s services, and where at least one season certainly didn’t have the success that Poles had hoped for.

Mooney’s 2021 season was one that pointed towards him potentially becoming a legitimate WR1 in the NFL, but his 2022 regressed, largely due to the fact that the entire Bears passing game regressed, and then Mooney’s final 5 games were wiped out due to injury.

With DJ Moore here, Mooney’s role in the offense will change. He no longer needs to be the WR1 and go-to-target for Justin Fields. Mooney’s role can be more of a complimentary one to Moore. As a WR1, Mooney’s success hasn’t been what it needs to be to be at that level, but as a WR2, Mooney has the chance this season to be one of the best in the league. Mooney doesn’t need to elevate from his 2021 season, he needs to match it (with a better catch rate) to establish himself as an elite WR2 at the NFL level.