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With Floor Established, Where is the Ceiling: A Closer Look at Darnell Mooney

| April 21st, 2022

After a promising rookie campaign, Chicago Bears WR Darnell Mooney had a breakthrough sophomore season in 2021. He posted the first 1000-yard season of his career and, as you can see in the table below, was among the top 20 WRs in the NFL in the three main receiving categories.

Of course, these are all volume stats, and high volume does not necessarily mean you are a top player. Mooney was the only not-terrible WR in Chicago last year, so he naturally saw a lot of balls thrown his way. As the only returning WR in 2022, I think it’s worth digging a bit into the advanced statistics to see how well Mooney did with those passes.


Man vs. Zone

Let’s start by looking at how Mooney did against man and zone coverages compared to his peers. I split the overall WR group based on how many targets players earned, and the samples broke down like this:

  • 100+ targets: 33 WRs fell in this group, and with 32 NFL teams, this was basically the WR1s.
  • 50-99 targets: 56 WRs are in this group, making it the WR 2 + 3 for each team. These are generally starters, but not the top targets.
  • 30-49 targets: 28 WRs are in this group, making it roughly a teams’ WR4. These are the top backups.
  • Less than 30 targets: 117 WRs (about 3.6/team) fell in this group, and these can be viewed as depth pieces.

The table below shows how WRs in those groupings performed in a variety of metrics against both man (orange) and zone (blue) coverage. All stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF).

A few thoughts:

  • It’s important to take the offense into consideration when evaluating Mooney’s stats against his peers. The Bears as a team ranked in the bottom 5 in the majority of passing categories, so it’s not really a surprise to see some of his efficiency stats looking low. For example, the Bears were about 4% lower than the NFL average in completion % (catch % here) and 0.4 yards below the NFL average in yards/attempt (yards/target here).
  • Even given that context, Mooney’s catch percentage is still quite low against both man and zone coverage. In man, this can be explained by his deeper targets (higher air yards/target), but that’s not true in zone. Mooney’s drop rate was not an issue (4.7%, 12th best of 33 WRs with 100+ targets), so I’m inclined to chalk this up to a high rate of uncatchable passes (Justin Fields was one of the least accurate passers in the NFL last year).

  • Mooney did better compared to his peers in yards/catch in both man and zone, which was driven by catching deep passes against man and picking up plenty of yards after the catch (YAC) against zone. Getting more yards/catch meant his yards/target marks were generally solid despite the low catch rates.
  • Generally, WRs are targeted more frequently against man than zone, and Mooney was no exception there. This is good, as it indicates he can be relied upon as a capable weapon regardless of the coverage. This is in stark contrast to Allen Robinson, who was quite effective against man but really struggled against zone, and Cole Kmet (More on him tomorrow).
  • Overall, Mooney was targeted on a per-route basis like a WR1, but he generally produced mostly like a WR2-3 in terms of efficiency against both man and zone coverage. Given the poor offense around him, that’s plenty respectable, and I think Mooney’s floor is as a capable WR2 going forward.

Targets by Depth

Now I want to examine Mooney’s performance at different depths of the field. Once again, I’ll be using data from PFF, and they split the field into four different depths: behind the line of scrimmage, 0-9 yards past the line (short), 10-19 yards (medium), and 20+ yards downfield (deep).

The table below shows Mooney’s main stats at each depth and gives the spread of other NFL WRs for comparison. All ranks here will be comparing him only to his WR1 peers, so the 33 players who saw at least 100 targets in 2021. Any area where Mooney ranked in the top ten is highlighted in green, while areas where he ranked in the bottom ten are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Mooney was one of the best high-volume WRs in the NFL at screen passes behind the line of scrimmage. These allowed him to use his speed to pick up plenty of YAC, and I am sure Chicago’s new coaching staff will continue to incorporate these opportunities into the game plan.
  • On the flip side, Mooney was one of the worst WRs in the NFL on short passes. This was the area of the field where Justin Fields struggled the most, so I think it is largely due to that, though I can’t say for sure. Allen Robinson’s efficiency on short passes was quite similar to Mooney’s, lending some support to the notion that this is offense-driven, not anything reflecting on Mooney, but this is definitely an area I will be watching Mooney going forward.
  • Potentially more concerning is Mooney’s struggles on deep passes, which was an area where Fields excelled last year. Of course, Mooney didn’t just catch passes from Fields (only 65 of his 140 targets were from Fields), so it’s possible the data here is skewed by Andy Dalton’s laughably inept deep game. PFF doesn’t let me parse this data by QB, but Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder does. It counts deep passes as anything 15 yards or more downfield, so it’s not exactly the same as PFF’s data set, but the Fields vs. Dalton/Foles split is stark on those deep balls:
    • From Fields: 12/20 (60%) for 310 yards (15.5 yards/attempt)
    • From Dalton/Foles: 5/18 (28%) for 137 yards (7.6 yards/attempt)
      • Based on this, I would conclude that Mooney’s deep ball “struggles” were QB-driven, and expect that it should not be an issue – and perhaps could even be a strength – moving forward with Justin Fields.

Explosive Plays

Now that we have the big-picture stuff out of the way, I want to focus on three specific areas that are important skill sets for a WR to have. The first is the ability to produce explosive plays, which are hugely important for overall offensive production. I count receptions that gain 20+ yards as explosive, and the table below shows how frequently Mooney produced them compared to his peers. From this point forward in the article, all stats are from the Game Play Finder, and all ranks and comparisons are relative to the 33 WRs with 100+ targets in 201.

A few thoughts:

  • On the surface, Mooney appears to be average to slightly below average here, but this is another area where breaking things up by QB might be helpful, because the change in explosiveness when Justin Fields was the QB vs. when anybody else was the QB was quite stark. Here’s how the data splits up for Mooney:
    • Fields: 65 targets, 10 explosive catches, 6.5 targets/explosive catch
    • Dalton/Foles: 74 targets, 4 explosive catches, 18.5 targets/explosive catch
  • When Justin Fields was throwing him the ball, Darnell Mooney was one of the more explosive WRs in the NFL; his 6.5 targets/explosive catch would have ranked 11th of the 33 WRs in this sample. Hopefully that can continue going forward, because the ability to both be a high-volume target and produce explosive plays efficiently would give Mooney immense value.

Third and Fourth Down

Next, let’s look at how Mooney was used on third and fourth down, because it is important for a high-volume WR to show that they can be a reliable target to help move the chains. I’m not tracking yardage here, because all that really matters in this situation is producing a 1st down.

The table below shows how frequently and effectively Mooney was targeted on 3rd and 4th down compared to his high-volume peers (100+ targets) in 2021. Areas where Mooney ranked in the bottom 10 of the 33-player sample are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Mooney was around average in terms of the frequency he was targeted on third and fourth down, but he was among the least effective high-volume WRs in the NFL in terms of turning these targets into first downs. That’s a concern worth monitoring going forward.
  • Just because I was curious, I once again split this data into Fields and Dalton/Foles at QB, just to see if there was a significant difference. Lo and behold, there was:
    • Fields to Mooney: 29% of targets on 3rd/4th down, 42% of targets and 89% of catches went for a first down.
    • Dalton/Foles to Mooney: 31% of targets on 3rd/4th down, 26% of targets and 55% of catches went for a first down.
      • If we just look at the Fields sample, which admittedly cuts the sample size in half, Mooney is closer to average in terms of his efficiency producing first downs. This would still not be a strength, but it at least makes it not as much of a weakness.
  • Either way, though, Mooney’s not a clear chain-moving weapon, as Allen Robinson was the Bears’ go-to WR on third and fourth down last year. 42% of Robinson’s targets came on third and fourth down, and he moved the chains on over half of those targets. New Bears WR Byron Pringle hasn’t shown the ability to help much here either, as only 23% of his targets came on third and fourth down last year. The Bears will have to find a new go-to player when they need to move the chains in 2022.

Red Zone

Finally, let’s take a look at how frequently and effectively Darnell Mooney was targeted in the red zone. The table below shows Mooney’s red zone stats, as well as how he compares to his 33 peers with 100+ targets. Areas where Mooney ranked in the bottom ten are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing that stands out is that Mooney wasn’t targeted all that frequently in the red zone.
    • Part of this is that the Bears didn’t throw it much in the red zone; they only had 68 red zone passing attempts, compared to an NFL average of 82.
    • Mooney did see his target share dip in the red zone; he saw 27% of Chicago’s passing targets overall on the year, but only 17% of their targets in the red zone. This makes sense, as he’s a smaller WR, and teams usually want to throw to big bodies when they start running out of space. This is why eight of Jimmy Graham’s 23 targets came in the red zone.
  • When he did see the ball, Mooney’s efficiency was just fine. It wasn’t anything special, but he was generally middle of the pack in catch % and turning his targets and catches into either a first down or TD.
  • I also checked to see if there was a noticeable difference when I split the stats by QB, but that gave me sample sizes of six passes from Fields and four from Dalton/Foles, which isn’t really enough to say much with.
  • With Jimmy Graham and Allen Robinson gone, I imagine Mooney could see an expanded red zone role this year, and I’m curious to see how he performs when that happens.

Wrap-Up

So, what have we learned about Mooney today? Here are my main takeaways:

  • He has shown he can be productive both against man and zone coverage.
  • He’s very good on screen passes.
  • When Fields was his QB, he was a weapon down the field and produced explosive plays at a near-elite rate.
  • He wasn’t super productive on third and fourth down, and the Bears will have to find some way to replace Allen Robinson’s production in that area in 2022.
  • He wasn’t targeted very often in the red zone, so we can’t say all that much about whether he can be a threat there. His small size may be a limitation in this area.

All in all, there’s nothing in Mooney’s underlying metrics to say he’s a stud WR, but there’s also nothing to say that he wasn’t as good as his overall volume numbers indicate. He was forced to take on a greatly expanded role in a dysfunctional offense, with no real other WR threats around him, and he mostly held up well.

Because of that, I think it’s fair to say Mooney has proven he is a quality starting WR in the NFL. What remains to be seen is if he can develop into more than that.

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