The one thing that every NFL rookie or second year player will tell interviewers, is that the toughest adjustment from college to professional football is the speed of the game and the athleticism of the players. In major college football, a player’s teammates were likely all-conference, and undoubtedly the best athletes in their respective high schools. Yet, there is still is gap between the good and the best players. In the pros, virtually every player on an NFL roster was an All-Conference or even All- American collegian.
It’s not unheard of for a low draft pick to excel at the next level. Four time pro-bowler and 1966 NFL player of the year Bart Starr was selected with the 200th pick in the 1956 NFL draft. Joe Klecko, part of the famed New York Sack Exchange, was chosen in the sixth round of the 1977 draft. Perhaps the best known member of this exclusive club is Tom Brady, who lasted until the sixth round as well.
Nobody is penciling Darnell Mooney’s name into Canton yet. However, this 2020 fifth round draft choice, taken at number 173 by the Chicago Bears, has appeared in every one of his team’s games this season. Mooney has shown a knack to get open, such as a key play in the Tampa game, when he grabbed a short pass that helped position the team for a go ahead field goal early in the fourth quarter.
It was probably the first day we came out here on grass and actually watched him. We knew. OK, yeah. This one’s real.-Bears coach Matt Nagy
Due to the lack of an in person rookie mini camp, and no offseason training activities (OTA’s), August was the first time the coaching staff got to see Mooney up close. Most of them had only seen him on video. “Because you see it on tape and you never really know, says Nagy. “The first time we got to training camp and saw the way that he ran routes and the way he caught; And his personality. The next question was, great, he looks good in shorts and t-shirt. What about when the pads come on? The pads came on and he kept doing it, and he kept doing it.”
Mooney’s recollection of that day, “I felt like I was just going out there, just working out as if I was out there by myself. Just doing drills. It didn’t feel any different. I knew exactly what I’d bring to the table.”
Nagy added, “He never gets tired. It’s unbelievable.The kid just runs and runs and runs. We had to pull back in (fall) training camp to not ‘overcook’ his legs. We did that and I think what you’re seeing now is the next test. You play the Detroit Lions in week one. Is the game going to be too big for him? Is he going to just start doing things different because the game is too big for him? No, he didn’t do it.”
The 5-10, 175 pound native of Gadsden, Alabama played college ball at Division I Tulane. Mooney picked up the Bears playbook during zoom sessions in lieu of summer training camp. “It was pretty smooth for me. I didn’t have much of a problem. Got locked in on the playbook. We ran some similar things at Tulane. I knew pretty much what I wanted coming here, so I made sure I knew what was going on.”
Nagy also noted that Mooney comes to the Halas Hall facility on his day off. “All the extra work that a lot of rookies don’t do, this kid’s doing it, like every single day. It’s awesome!”
Quarterback Nick Foles was asked for his assessment of Mooney. “I think for him being a rookie, from a mindset first and foremost, he’s got a great mindset and he’s a great teammate, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him and being around him. From a skill set, I think he’s an extremely talented player that is going to continue to develop and be a really, really good player in this league.”
Fellow wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson says, “Darnell is a great player. He’s a player that wants to learn everything. Having a guy like him is great for us. His role is just increasing. It’s good. Coming in as a late pick, stepping up when your number is called. You know how to do your job. He’s showing the coaches he’s trustworthy. The coaches see that. You’re going to get better opportunities and more opportunities.”
Chicago wide receivers coach Mike Furrey is equally impressed regarding Darnell’s maturity, his ‘football IQ’, and his demeanor in a professional football game. “It seems like he’s been around this game a long time,” Furrey says. “That continues to impress me in regards to everything he’s being put through so far, going out there and playing forty snaps a game, and doing what we’re asking him to do. We’re all waiting for that moment for him to have a big game. Because we all know he’s capable of doing it, I think that’s going to help him down the road when that big game happens.”
Where did Darnell develop that work ethic? “I got that from my mom and my father. They always pushed me to work hard, and never settle for less. Whatever you work for, you’ll be able to get and achieve at the end of the day.”
Dave Ragone serves as the team’s passing game coordinator. His take, “from the day he’s gotten here, and more importantly, since the zoom meetings, you just saw a player who in my opinion was mature for not just a rookie, but a guy who would be young in this league. The way he has approached those meetings you could tell a lot. Then you got to see him in person. How he interacts and the questions he was asking. You could tell he was a mature and prepared individual. But when you got to see him run live and in person, you really got to feel his speed. His detail to route running and how he runs routes. I think the sky is the limit in terms of his ability to win one-on-one matchups because of his speed and his ability to put his foot in the ground.”
Even times when he’s out there, you don’t realize that he’s a rookie. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him.-Dave Ragone
Ironically Mooney is his own harshest critic, “I don’t feel like I’m playing that well,” he states. “I’m playing decent. I feel like I could play way better. Like I said before the season had started, it doesn’t matter really how much praise I’m getting, I feel like I have to do better. It’s going to keep pushing me until I do better, and have better numbers. But I’m always unsatisfied regardless of what’s going on. I could go out and have five touchdowns this weekend , and I’ll still be unsatisfied because I didn’t have six.
I really locked in about it (being unsatisfied) during my college years. When I caught the ball, I had a huge a play, and a big game. But then it goes away. Because no cares about what you did the game before. Just the same mind set.-Darnell Mooney
Furrey adds, “Up until now, how he handles his career on his daily basis, is becoming more and more respected by his peers and his teammates. He’s in a really good situation right now. What’s exciting is the more and more experience he gets playing in big games, the better football player he’s going to become.”
Mooney takes it all in stride, “whatever is in the game plan, whatever goes on during the game, it happens. Whatever coach Nagy and coach Lazer want me to do. I’m available anytime.”
“I’ve been blessed to be around some great players and some great receivers,” says Foles. “He has all the ability in the world to be one of those, and I’m really excited about what the future holds for him.”