The Bears have long loved Darnell Mooney.
Former head coach Matt Nagy called him a “steal” after the Bears drafted the Tulane receiver in the fifth round in 2020. When new general manager Ryan Poles sat down at the NFL Scouting Combine in March to break down the roster he inherited, he singled out one person.
“The bright spot,” he said, “was Mooney.”
It was Mooney who traveled to Georgia with quarterback Justin Fields to work out during the offseason — and who has become one of his best friends, biggest cheerleaders and most vocal hype men. It was Mooney who didn’t complain publicly when the offense sputtered to start the season — or when, after it surged, the Bears traded for fellow receiver Chase Claypool.
So when the Bears lost Mooney for the season Sunday with a left ankle injury, it was a particularly cruel blow on a day full of them.
“You feel it,” tight end Cole Kmet said Monday. “When you have guys like that who do things the right way consistently and don’t complain about everything — he does what he’s told to do and does it at 100% all of the time. Those are the type of leaders that you want in the locker room, and the type of guy that other guys in the locker room gravitate towards.”
Mooney will go on injured reserve and miss the rest of the season, head coach Matt Eberflus said. He likely needs ligament surgery, but will discuss the details during an upcoming doctor’s appointment.
He hurt his ankle while blocking on a third-quarter run play during Sunday’s 31-10 loss to the Jets. Safety Jordan Whitehead rolled up on his ankle while trying to tackle David Montgomery.
“What I told him [Sunday] was just, ‘Hey, just hang in there — things happen,'” Eberflus said. “‘Still be around. We want you to be around and be in that leadership role and helping the younger players out.’
“He’s a great Bear, for sure.”
Time will tell if the Bears pay him like one. The 25-year-old Mooney is eligible for a contract extension for the first time this offseason. His current deal expires after next year.
He was the 25th wide receiver picked in 2020 but ranks fifth in the class with 182 receptions, sixth with 2,179 receiving yards and seventh with 10 touchdown catches.
One year after catching 81 balls for 1,055 yards, Mooney’s numbers were down this season. He caught 40 balls for 493 yards, both team highs, and two touchdowns in a 2022 Bears offense that has never been prolific through the air. Mooney was tied for 47th in the league in receiving yards entering Monday night’s game.
The Bears appreciate his run-blocking and his effort. GPS trackers show that Mooney doubles up some teammates in how far he runs during practice.
How much Ryan Poles and the front office values all of the above will be compelling; the Bears have the most salary cap space in the league this offseason and Mooney is open to a deal. He’s one of a half-dozen or so Bears who have a chance to be top contributors on their next good team, whenever that may be.
“I think he’s been doing a great job,” Eberflus said. “Obviously, it was a slow start for everybody. Once we got going into the offense, I think he really started to shine. Outstanding at blocking the perimeter. He had a really nice connection with Justin throughout that stretch.
“He is our leading receiver. But more importantly he is a great teammate. He’s a great leader.”
And now he’s out.
“He just brings light in the room … ” Kmet said. “Whenever you lose a guy like that in the huddle, it’s definitely tough for the team.”