On February 27, at Lucas Oil Stadium, Darnell Mooney slowed down his strides to a leisurely pace. The Tulane wide receiver looked up at the jumbotron that held the cards to his football future. What he finds are three numbers: Four. Three. Eight.
Right or wrong, it’s this trifecta of seemingly random digits that is currently bonded to Mooney’s underrated draft profile.
He’s far more than just a 40-yard dash time, however, and it’s about time the world knew it.
Release The Beast
Fast, thin wideouts are type-cast into the same deep threat role. What separates Mooney, however, is his ability to win vertically not only off of his athleticism but with technique. He’s well-versed at getting off the line of scrimmage against either off or press-man coverage and is a patient, crafty technician that understands leverage.
"The main thing is to give him something quick," Mooney told TDN. “And after that, if I stack you, it’s kind of over with.”
This sort of shiftiness is apparent in Mooney’s tape, but particularly in release situations. He is able to use his flexibility to dip under press defenders, accelerates at an elite pace and pushes deep with immense success. Mooney is also comfortable using false steps to confuse his opponent and leave them off-balance, which is the type of patient and sophisticated approach that not a lot of collegiate wideouts have.
Consistency is admittedly still an issue, but it’s rare to see this type of knowledge (and the application of that knowledge) from a prospect.
“Just my IQ of the game,” Mooney said. “Me essentially, I just have to know what everyone is doing on the field for me to understand what’s going on. What’s the key to this play...What’s the QB thinking? Understanding coverages is also so important. A lot of guys are just like “if this guy does this, then throw the ball here. They don’t have to focus on coverages and analyze what the defender is doing.”
All in all, Mooney’s ability to process a defender's foot patterns and use a variety of release packages — not just speed releases — is critical to his next-level role and one of the main sticking points in his evaluation. You can’t just win by being fast and it’s refreshing that Mooney, despite his blazing athleticism, already knows that fact.
Falling In Love
At just 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, size is undoubtedly the biggest negative in Mooney’s current report; coming from a small school and having middling production also doesn't help, but Mooney's thin frame is preventing him from ranking higher on draft boards.
“I mean I don’t look at it as a size difference. Honestly, you just have to have the mentality to not be stopped,” he said. “At the end of the day, you gotta fall in love with the ball. The ball is stopping you and the defender from deciding who the best player is. Obviously, I want to be the best player, so anytime the ball is in the air I want it.”
Fortunately for Mooney, his film backs up his assertive play. He’s able to continually win on back-shoulder throws and in contested situations and despite lacking some strength, he showed strong leaping ability and impressive above-the-rim production. His hands weren’t always consistent, but rarely did size actually prove to be his main problem.
Back To The Future
In order to find out what Mooney’s future has in store, I needed to look back to see what he’s always aspired to be. When I asked Mooney who he modeled his game after, two immediate answers came out of his mouth: Adam Thielen and Jarvis Landry.
“[Thielen] runs great routes and [he’s] super explosive in and out of his routes,” Mooney explained. “Jarvis Landry as well. I like Landry particularly because he's very aggressive. I’m not as aggressive as he is yet, but it’s a long time coming.”
Both of these are simply wonderful players to try and emulate as each excels in the technical and mental aspects of the game, areas where Mooney — or any prospect for that matter — could stand to improve in. They also are both superb with their hand usage and really comfortable using long arms to create last-second separation on deep patterns. Mooney has yet to really develop his hands to use as a weapon, but it’s clear that it’s a trait that he wants to (and can) improve on.
As for what I currently see in the Tulane prospect, it’s hard not to envision former Seahawk Paul Richardson while watching the electric playmaker. Yes, the 2014 second-round pick had his career derailed by injuries, but he was an explosive, impact player in his prime. If a team can draft a Richardson-like prospect with a Day 3 pick, that’s an absolutely terrific value.
Although Mooney is a flashy presence out on the field, his hobbies off of it are a bit more reserved. He enjoys listening to music and playing video games like Madden, Call of Duty, and NBA 2K; Mooney prefers indoor activities and mainly staying in the house.
As for his taste in music, he goes through the entire playbook, resorting to a plethora of genres including hip-hop, R&B, soul, country and gospel. Like his releases off of the line of scrimmage, Mooney has a variety of preferences in the field and rarely chooses a specific album or song.
As he so eloquently puts it “I just press shuffle.”
To end our interview I asked Mooney to make a straight-forward pitch to NFL clubs on what he brings to the table. He brought up three crucial words: Honest. Hard-working. Dependable.
Now, these three digits might not be as important for his draft stock but it shows the type of quality individual a team is getting. No, he’s not the biggest. He didn’t go to Clemson or Alabama. He sure isn’t the second coming of Jerry Rice. It doesn’t matter. Mooney is being criminally underrated and it’s about time that it ends.
Ideally in about two weeks.