Bears need all WRs to step up with Darnell Mooney out


The Bears offense has gone through several ups and downs this season, from its slow start, to scoring 30+ points three times in a four-game stretch, to Justin Fields’ shoulder injury. They hit a new low on Monday when Matt Eberflus revealed Darnell Mooney was likely headed to season-ending surgery due to an ankle injury he suffered in Week 12 against the Jets.

“Yeah, that was tough,” said Justin Fields. “Just the kind of guy he is, what he brings to our offense, not only as a player but a leader.”

Everyone in the Bears locker room respects Mooney. He’s an upbeat guy with a positive attitude and a relentless work ethic. Mooney’s also by far the most productive wide receiver on the team. He leads the position in catches (40) and receiving yards (493), and no one else is close to those marks. Equanimeous St. Brown ranks second on the team in both categories, but he only has 14 catches for 195 yards.

Mooney isn’t just the most productive wide receiver, he also has the most responsibility. No other wideout is asked to line up at as many positions on the field, take on as many assignments, or play as many snaps as Mooney. From the outside looking in, it looks like a huge challenge to replace everything Mooney does for the Bears offense over the last few weeks of the season, but Fields has a different perspective on his absence.

“I think it’s an opportunity,” Fields said. “I’m excited to build that connection more with other receivers on the team. So I think it’s going to be fun finding out what different guys can do because in our offense we usually game plan on certain routes what Darnell could do. But it’s going to be fun figuring out what other guys can do out there and just getting together with them.”

One of those guys is Byron Pringle. The former Chiefs wide receiver was signed over the offseason to act as the team’s presumptive No. 2 wideout, but injuries delayed his development in Luke Getsy’s offense. Pringle has had more opportunities lately, and showed a glimpse of his ability with a remarkable touchdown catch last week. But Pringle says we still haven’t seen everything he can do, yet.

“I’m always hungry,” Pringle said. “You can look at that from last year. I’m always hungry. I’m just waiting on my number to be called.”

There’s also the Bears’ pair of big-bodied receivers: N’Keal Harry and Chase Claypool. They come in at 6’4”, 225 lbs and 6’4” 238 lbs, respectively, giving Fields two big targets. Harry seemed to be on an upward trend after catching four balls for 44 yards and a touchdown over Weeks 7-9. But Harry has been a healthy scratch two of the three weeks since, and inactive for the third due to an illness. Claypool arrived with much fanfare at the trade deadline, and put together his most productive game last week. He had two explosive catches, highlighted by his impressive grab over Sauce Gardner for a 31-yard gain.

“That's what I have to do every game,” said Claypool. “So it was good to start there and then hopefully build as the weeks continue.”

One of the most intriguing and enigmatic options is Velus Jones Jr. The Bear selected him in the third-round of this year’s draft, instead of several other highly-touted players, in large part due to his upside to make explosive plays. The team was drawn to his athleticism and his ability to contribute in the run game and special teams in addition to the passing game. But injuries kept Jones Jr. sidelined for two of three preseason games, and the first three games of the year. When he was finally cleared to play, the Bears used him sparingly on offense. Over his first five games, Jones Jr. only caught three balls for 24 yards and a touchdown, and rushed three times for another 41 yards. He only played 43 total snaps.

After muffing several punts on special teams, the Bears benched Jones Jr. and he was a healthy scratch for two weeks. Jones Jr. worked his way back into the lineup in Weeks 11 and 12, but he was used even more sparingly than before. In the two games since his benching, he only carried the ball twice for six yards. Jones Jr. wasn’t targeted in the passing game.

Jones Jr. is sad to see Mooney hurt, but is looking forward to the possibility that his role on offense can increase.

“I’ve just been trying to enjoy myself lately,” Jones Jr. said. “Go out, have fun, because that’s what it’s all about. You can go out and complicate it if you want, but at the end of the day, I’ve been working my whole life to be in this position, so go out there and have fun and don’t overthink.

“Nothing’s ever going to be perfect. Be close to perfect.”

As for the one thing Jones Jr. wants to show over the waning moments of the season:

“I’m just waiting for that moment to catch a ball in space, just to show how lethal I am with the ball in my hands.”

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