Rookie watch: Is Mooney becoming an X-factor for Bears?

USA Today

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – It wouldn’t have been too notable had we not seen much of Darnell Mooney during the Bears’ first few padded practices. It would’ve been easy to write it off as a fifth-round pick slowly acclimating to NFL without the benefit of any foundation-building spring practices.

But that’s not the case. We’ve seen a lot of Mooney this week. And while it’s early, the Bears do seem to have plans for the speedy receiver out of Tulane in 2020.

“We’re putting him in different spots and seeing how much he can handle,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “He’s doing a good job separating himself and running the routes and being on the quarterback’s timing.

“And he can fly a little bit as well, so we love to see that.”

(Mooney, by the way, has the second-highest speed rating of any Bears player in Madden 20.)

We’ve heard players and coaches praise the speed at which Mooney’s picked up his assignments in the Bears’ offense, and coach Matt Nagy likened Mooney’s attentiveness and demeanor in meetings to that of Allen Robinson (an awfully lofty comparison). All this is important first step for a guy who hadn’t actually practiced anything in his team’s playbook until only a few weeks ago.

But it’s just a first step, not necessarily a sign Mooney will be an X-factor or under-the-radar weapon once Sept. 13 rolls around.

“The biggest thing for him is going to be the transition here over the next couple weeks when we start going against the guys out there in full pads where it’s longer days, now your technique, you gotta continue to remember what you’re doing, the verbiage of the playbook continues to stack,” wide receivers coach Mike Furrey said. “And so that’s where it’s really going to be now from a development standpoint is how much can he handle that and continue to go out and produce the way he did when he didn’t have pads on.”


On some level, though, it’s encouraging that the Bears are even testing Mooney this early on in his pro career. So far, it looks and sounds like he’s handling those tests well.

Now he has to keep it up over the next few weeks. If he does, keep an eye out for No. 11 on your TV screens Sept. 13.

“I’m very comfortable (in the offense),” Mooney said. “I mean, if you know the plays, you don’t have any type of confusion or discomfort with it. If you know what you’re doing, you just go out there and play ball.”

Urgency vs. patience for Johnson

Three things came into focus about Jaylon Johnson this week

-The Bears are bringing him along slowly with his shoulder.

-He’s the most talented participant in the Bears’ cornerback competition.

-Time is already running out for him to start Week 1.

“He can run, he's got length, he's got confidence, he's got ball skills,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He's got all that stuff. But until we actually see him live, whether it's live periods out here, thud periods out here, scrimmage situation if that comes up – whatever coach Nagy comes up with from a drill standpoint – once he's plugged in, just see how he reacts.”

This coming week feels like a big one for Johnson’s readiness to open the season with some sort of role on the Bears’ defense. Only three weeks separate Sunday from the Bears’ season opener, leaving him without much of a runway to get ready face Kenny Golladay or Marvin Jones.

The Bears do have some options here, though. Kevin Toliver II could get the starting nod. Or maybe there’s a way to ease Johnson in with Buster Skrine playing outside in base and inside in sub packages, with Johnson playing outside when Skrine slides to nickel. I'm not sure how realistic that last one is, but we have seen Skrine playing outside a bit since Artie Burns' season-ending injury. 

Eventually, Johnson is going to start. But will his path to starting be closer to James Daniels in 2018 (who didn’t play until he began rotating at left guard in Week 4) or Roquan Smith the same year (who didn’t start Week 1 but did Week 2)? Or will he mirror Eddie Jackson and start Week 1 and never give up his spot?

I think we’ll have a much clearer answer by next weekend.


“Everything I was doing was just to be ready for this situation,” Johnson said. “So now coming into it and it being real, I feel like everything I have worked for and been doing all these years just came to pass and now that I am here, I feel like I am ready. I still have my mistakes to get out of the way, but physically I feel like I’m ready.”

Star power

It’s been an up-and-down week for Cole Kmet, who got razzed for a false start in Monday’s practice and hasn’t always made plays when given opportunities. But there’ve also been moments where Kmet’s size, speed and athleticism shine, like in Tuesday’s one-on-one drills. It's hard to miss the physical traits possessed by the 6-foot-6, 262 pound second-round pick. 

“I think that he’s going to be a star in this league,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “I think he’s a good player, he’s a physical dude. He’s a bigger guy than you would probably imagine for a guy that can run and catch like that.”

RELATED: Why Jimmy Graham sees himself in Cole Kmet

Kmet, so far, has not looked overmatched in padded practices – something that became quickly apparent with the last tight end the Bears drafted in the second round (Adam Shaheen, 2017). While Kmet hasn’t been perfect, it’s hard to expect any rookie to put in 100 percent clean practices this year.

And Kmet has a good understanding of that wrinkle to 2020, which should help him carve out a role in the Bears’ offense from the first snap of the season.

“I think I’m trying to make every rep count and learn from every rep,” Kmet said. “Those reps are really valuable. You only get so many in a practice. You’ve really got to make those count. You make a mistake, you’ve got to know, ‘I made a mistake here’ and correct it the next day.

“It’s got to be quick fixes. You got to show that you’re able to adapt quickly.”

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