Chicago Bears second-year wide receiver Darnell Mooney is beginning to produce like a legitimate playmaker in Chicago’s offense after registering back-to-back 100-yard games against the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions. In total, Mooney had 10 catches for 244 yards and one touchdown in the last two weeks, bringing his season total to 46 catches, 694 yards, and three scores.
Mooney, who joined the Bears as a fifth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, has emerged as one of that year’s biggest draft steals. Think about it, 13 wide receivers were drafted in the first two rounds and there’s an argument to be made that he’s been the best of the bunch sans Justin Jefferson (Minnesota Vikings) and, maybe, CeeDee Lamb (Dallas Cowboys).
Assuming Mooney continues at his current pace, he’ll finish the season with more than 1,000 yards and five scores. It’s a rate of production that’s even more impressive when you consider he’s played most of the season with Justin Fields as the rookie quarterback goes through his growing pains. Mooney’s proven through his nearly two seasons in the league that he can produce regardless of who’s throwing him the ball, which is usually a trait shared by high-level receivers across the league.
Here’s the list of pass-catchers who were selected in the first two rounds while Mooney waited until Round 5 for his phone to ring. The number of players who’d be picked before him if the 2020 NFL Draft was redone today would be extremely small.
Henry Ruggs III
Las Vegas Raiders: Round 1, Pick 11
Ruggs III was the first wideout drafted in 2020 and it’s safe to say that pick hasn’t worked out. He was slow to develop on the field and his off-field troubles will likely keep him out of the league for good.
Denver Broncos: Round 1, Pick 15
Jeudy’s been solid through his first two seasons and has even flashed elite, superstar-level route-running at times. But he’s been limited by injury and horrendous quarterback play in Denver, making him a somewhat incomplete comparison to Mooney. Still, knowing what we know today, it’s no lock that Jeudy would be valued above Mooney.
Dallas Cowboys: Round 1, Pick 17
Lamb has been fantastic in the early part of his career and looks very much like he will be one of the NFL’s top five wide receivers for a very long time. He’s had the benefit of playing with the best quarterback of all the early-round wideouts (Dak Prescott) and it’s helped him make some highlight-reel plays. Lamb had an impressive rookie year with 935 yards and five touchdowns and has already topped that touchdown mark in 2021 (six). His yards per reception have gone up this year, too. He’s a stud. It’s that simple.
Philadelphia Eagles: Round 1, Pick 21
If it wasn’t for Ruggs III’s off-field problems, Reagor would be the biggest bust among the 2020 wide receiver class. He had just 560 yards and three scores as a rookie and is off to a worse start this year with just 170 yards through Week 12. The Eagles doubled down on wide receiver in the 2021 NFL Draft with the selection of DeVonta Smith in the first round, which suggests the outlook isn’t great for Reagor moving forward. Advantage, Mooney.
Minnesota Vikings: Round 1, Pick 22
Jefferson was one of the best picks of the entire 2020 NFL Draft and has already become one of the NFL’s top wide receivers not even two years into his career. He enjoyed a record-setting rookie year with 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s having a fantastic 2021 campaign, too, with 944 yards and six scores in 10 games. Jefferson is an elite player who, if the 2020 draft was held today, would be a top-five pick.
San Francisco 49ers: Round 1, Pick 25
Aiyuk’s promising rookie year has been chilled by an odd second season that’s found him in coach Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse for some mysterious reason. His play has been gaining steam over the last couple of weeks, but his up-and-down tenure in San Francisco makes it debatable whether he’d be preferred over Mooney at this point. The best pro wideouts are guys who not only have high ceilings but also high floors, and Mooney’s definitely established himself as a more reliable pro so far.
Cincinnati Bengals: Round 2, Pick 33
Higgins, like Mooney, has proven to be a very good value selection by the Bengals. He’s played like a first-round pick at times, and aside from Jefferson and Lamb, Higgins may have been the most impressive rookie pass-catcher in 2020. He had more than 900 yards and six touchdowns in his first season and while he’s been a bit inconsistent in 2021, he profiles as a player who has more upside than Mooney because of his physical makeup and similar big-play ability.
Michael Pittman Jr.
Indianapolis Colts: Round 2, Pick 34
Pittman’s growth in the Colts’ offense in 2021 has been significant after a rookie year that was less than impressive. He’s a player on the rise who has rare traits (6-foot-4, 223 pounds) and the production is beginning to match. It’s hard to take a player like Mooney, who isn’t big or physical enough to make the plays Pittman is capable of, over the former USC star, even if Mooney has more production on his resume so far.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Round 2, Pick 42
Shenault is a fun player to watch but he isn’t anywhere near the kind of polished route-runner Mooney is—it’s unlikely he’ll ever get there, either. Shenault is stuck in a tough spot with a Jaguars team that’s going through its own bumps and bruises in Year 1 of the Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence era, but for a player who was touted as a do-it-all dynamo, he’s been nothing more than solid. Mooney is an easy choice over Shenault right now.
Denver Broncos: Round 2, Pick 46
Hamler is an incomplete comparison because of his limited reps. He’s appeared in only three games this year due to a season-ending knee injury suffered in Week 3. There’s no doubt Hamler has field-flipping talent, but this one isn’t close. Mooney by a mile.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Round 2, Pick 49
Claypool has done some things early in his career that make him an easy pick over Mooney even though the Bears’ wideout has been a tad more consistent than the former Golden Domer. Still, Claypool’s nine touchdowns as a rookie only scratch the surface of the kind of impact he can make in the NFL. A rare size-speed combination, Claypool has every superstar box checked.
Los Angeles Rams: Round 2, Pick 57
Is any analysis even required here? Jefferson’s early career role has been as a depth player, and while he appeared to be emerging as the WR3 in Los Angeles this year, the Rams’ decision to trade for Odell Beckham Jr. suggests they felt an upgrade was needed. Jefferson will have a long career in the NFL but he won’t make the kind of weekly impact Mooney’s capable of.
New York Jets: Round 2, Pick 59
Mims, like Reagor and Ruggs III, has been a gigantic flop early in his career. While he won’t go down as big of a bust as those two because he wasn’t a first-round pick, it certainly seems like he should’ve been the fifth-rounder with Mooney coming off the board in the top 60 instead.