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Column: Darnell Mooney is a ‘forgotten piece’ for Chicago Bears offense while DJ Moore on pace to make team history

Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney catches a long pass against the Chargers on Oct. 29, 2023, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)
Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney catches a long pass against the Chargers on Oct. 29, 2023, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

One way for the Chicago Bears to get more out of their passing game, which has been more productive this season with the arrival of DJ Moore, will be to get Darnell Mooney more involved over the final five games.

Mooney has mostly been ignored in the passing game, a fact overshadowed to a large degree by the performance of Moore, who has 70 receptions for 1,003 yards and six touchdowns, putting him on pace to join Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery among one of the best seasons in franchise history.

Moore has a chance to join Marshall (twice, record 118 in 2012), Allen Robinson, Marty Booker and Matt Forte as the only players in Bears history to catch 100 passes in a season. He also has a shot at eclipsing Marshall’s team-best 1,508 yards from 2012.

In no way should the Bears should shift focus away from getting Moore as involved as possible. He has been every bit the difference maker the organization hoped — maybe more — since he was acquired in March in the trade with the Carolina Panthers for the No. 1 pick in March. The Bears have a 117.8 passer rating when targeting Moore, but they’ve topped 222 net passing yards in only two games, so a lot of substantial plays have been missed.

What the Bears lack is consistent production from WR2, which in most cases has been Darnell Mooney, the fourth-year player who has been on the field for 73% of offensive snaps. At one point the go-to target for quarterback Justin Fields and offense’s de factor No. 1 receiver, Mooney is rarely seeing the ball, one reason why tight end Cole Kmet has 56 receptions, four off his career high of 60 from 2021.

Entering Week 14, Mooney has 42 targets, 25 receptions for 351 yards (14 yards per catch) and one touchdown. He has been targeted more than four times in three games — two of them starts by undrafted rookie Tyson Bagent — and has two touches or fewer in eight of 12 games, including the last three. He has been targeted 23 times in eight starts (2.9 average) by Fields two years after he was targeted 140 times and had 81 receptions for 1,055 yards.

To put the lack of production from a second receiver in context, only three teams have gotten fewer than 25 receptions from their WR2: the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets. One of these is not like the others. The Chiefs’ production with quarterback Patrick Mahomes throwing to tight end Travis Kelce and an uninspiring group of receivers only highlights his rare ability.

The predicament has done nothing to boost Mooney’s stock as he looks ahead to free agency after the season.

“I don’t want to really be a distraction to myself or within the team so I just try to be as original as I can,” Mooney said. “Obviously there is frustration within wanting to be me and play and perform like I can. As long as we’re winning, it’s fine. If we’re not, it’s not fine at all.”

I told Mooney he always has struck me as the opposite of a diva wide receiver, the kind of player who when things aren’t coming his way will make a scene on the field, on the sideline or with a public airing of dissatisfaction.

“I’ve seen it when you have guys that act that way,” he said. “They get what they want out of it for sure. Definitely I have that in my mind at times but I just don’t have the energy to do that. I just let the chips fall where they call and play the cards that I’ve got. I’ve got to perform and take advantage of the opportunities I get. It doesn’t matter how small or how big they are.”

Mooney is averaging 8.4 yards per target, a career best, and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy highlighted the 10-yard gain he had on a third-down play in the fourth quarter of the Week 12 win at Minnesota.

“It’s honestly more of cracks at the at-bat,” Getsy said when asked about the target volume and Mooney having only 25 receptions. “What’s Cole have? 56 catches. That part of it is different. He hasn’t that much success to this point. You have DJ, who has 70 catches. It’s not like we’re giving it so (some other WR2). It’s not because of Mooney, I promise you that.

“He’s doing a great job. He’s getting open. He’s doing what he does and sometimes it’s the fact that we have a guy who can run and make plays, extend it. It’s unfortunate because (against Minnesota), Justin just barely missed him when he extended on that third-and-long (in the second quarter). Mooney did a great job reacting. Came back to him later in the game on that third-and-4 and they all all-out pressured and Mooney makes the big conversion. Unfortunately we fumbled it two plays later.”

It’s raises an interesting question. If the Bears are considering keeping Fields and building around him with their bounty of draft capital, how much difference would Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. make in the offense?

Harrison is undoubtedly a superior talent to Mooney. He might be better than Moore from Day 1. But if Fields and the Bears can only marginally involve their second receiver now, what kind of overall impact would having two elite wide receivers create?

In that scenario — and who knows how the offseason will unfold — perhaps the Bears deem Harrison too good to pass up and choose him anyway with Fields as the quarterback. But unless Fields’ game changes significantly, it’s difficult to envision Moore and Harrison both being superior producers when watching Mooney go game after game barely seeing the ball.

“He’s like a forgotten piece,” one longtime scout who has watched the Bears this season said of Mooney. “And he’s been open a lot.”

Two other pro scouts who have done reports on the Bears this season said Fields’ inconsistency moving from his primary read to Nos. 2 and 3 has created this situation.

“DJ has been great for him, but Mooney just doesn’t see the ball,” one said. “And I’ve got a lot of love for Mooney.”

“Fields sticks on his primary read,” the other scout texted. “And waits for him to uncover. Most of the time that’s Moore. Did the same thing at Ohio State.”

Of late, unless the Bears are calling a designed play for Mooney such as a short screen pass, the ball is rarely going to him.

Fortunately, he has taken a diminished role in stride, and with five games remaining maybe Mooney will start seeing the ball with a little more regularity. Opportunities are there, especially with most opponents mindful of Moore, especially in clear passing situations.

But you really need to pause and ask if another WR2 — or even a second WR1 — would dramatically change this passing offense as currently constructed.