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Darnell Mooney - 2021 Fantasy Sleeper

Training camp activities are continuing for all 32 teams and we have reached the onset of preseason matchups. This has incentivized fantasy managers to increase their draft preparation and roster construction, with the goal of capturing their leagues. The team at RotoBaller is fully aware of your efforts to maximize the scoring potential for each roster that you build during these final weeks of the offseason.

That is why we have been providing news,  compiling statistics, and delivering detailed analysis as part of our unrelenting efforts to help you win your leagues. That includes our series of articles that focus on specific players who have been designated as sleepers. This term is evolving and does not suggest that you are unfamiliar with these particular players.

Many fantasy managers have become proficient at researching their options before each draft. That has shifted the definition for the term sleeper toward describing players that are primed to exceed the expectations of their ADPs. With that explanation established, here is a breakdown of second-year receiver Darnell Mooney, who should generate numbers that surpass his Round 11 ADP (130/WR50).

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Promising Signs At Tulane

Mooney displayed his enticing speed and his prowess at gaining separation during four seasons at Tulane. He accumulated 2,572 yards with the Green Wave while assembling 993 yards/8 touchdowns during his junior year. He also finished eighth among all wide receivers in yards per reception (20.6) and collected 48 receptions during each of his two final seasons.

Mooney provided another demonstration of his speed while completing the 40-yard dash in 4.38 at the NFL Combine. Mooney’s capabilities as a route runner also created the potential for him to accumulate sizable yardage on shorter routes, in addition to functioning effectively as a vertical weapon. However, the enthusiasm surrounding his prospects of becoming a playmaker at the NFL level was tempered by apprehension regarding his size (5’ 10”, 175 pounds). This elevated concerns about his durability, and the potential that he would be neutralized by physical coverage. It also contributed to his availability in Round 5 of the NFL Draft when Chicago’s General Manager Ryan Pace traded up to select him (173rd overall).


Mooney's Rookie Season

The selection of Mooney occurred after 24 other wide receivers had been drafted. However, he ultimately finished fifth among all rookies in both receptions (61), and air yards (1,133), sixth in targets (98), and seventh in receiving yards (631). His reception total was also the second-highest for a newcomer in franchise history.

Mooney operated on the perimeter during 55% of his routes, and finished second on the Bears in targets (6.1 per game), receptions (3.8 per game), receiving yards (39.4 per game), and air yards (70.8 per game). After averaging 5.4 targets and 3.3 receptions per game during his first eight matchups (Weeks 1-8) those averages rose to 6.9 targets/4.4 receptions per game during his final eight contests (Weeks 9-17).

Targ/Gm Rec/Gm Red Zone
Weeks 1-8 5.4 3.3 3
Weeks 9-17 6.9 4.4 7

This propelled him to third among all rookies in receptions from Weeks 9-17 (35), while he was also fourth in red zone targets, and fifth in targets (55).

Weeks 9-17 Rec Targets Targ/Gm Rec Yards Red Zone
Justin Jefferson 57 85 9.4 837 8
Chase Claypool 39 75 8.3 498 10
Darnell Mooney 35 55 6.9 326 7
Tee Higgins 34 56 7 420 4
CeeDee Lamb 34 50 6.3 411 5
Brandon Aiyuk 32 54 10.8 377 5
Michael Pittman Jr. 30 48 5.3 424 7
Jerry Jeudy 29 66 7.3 497 3
Laviska Shenault Jr. 29 41 5.9 276 7
Jalen Reagor 23 40 5 284 4
Gabriel Davis 20 39 4.9 394 7

Mooney was second among Chicago wide receivers in each of those categories during his final eight matchups, while also finishing second in snap share (77.7%), air yards (457), percentage share of air yards (23.0%), and red zone targets (7).

Mooney also finished first among all receivers in average cushion from Weeks 1-17 according to Next Gen Stats. His yardage total could have expanded considerably if Chicago's quarterbacks had been proficient at maximizing those opportunities.

Wide Receiver Average Cushion
Darnell Mooney 7.6
Marquise Brown 7.5
Braxton Berrios 7.1
Laviska Shenault Jr. 7.1
Henry Ruggs III 7
Cam Sims 7
Robert Woods 6.9
Curtis Samuel 6.8
Corey Davis 6.8
Deebo Samuel 6.7
Marvin Jones 6.7
Brandin Cooks 6.7
Tre'Quan Smith 6.7
David Moore 6.7
Danny Amendola 6.7



Chicago’s 2020 Passing Attack

Chicago was sixth in pass play percentage (62.3%) and eighth in attempts per game (38.4) during 2020. But the Bears were also tied for 26th in yards per attempt (6.0), which contributed to their ranking of 22nd in passing yardage  (228.4 per game). Mitchell Trubisky guided Chicago's offense in 10 matchups (nine starts), finished 31st in both attempts (297) and completions (199), and ending the year with a 67% completion percentage. Nick Foles was equally underwhelming while performing in nine games (seven starts), finishing 30th in both attempts (312), and completions (202), and completing 64.7% of his throws.

Foles was also 24th in intended air yards (2,502/8.0 per attempt) and 29th in competed air yards (1,151/5.7 per attempt). Trubisky was 29th in attempted air yards (2,329/7.8 per attempt), while his inefficiency relegated him to 32nd in completed air yards (1,052/5.3 per attempt).

Quarterbacks Rank IAY Rank CAY
Nick Foles 26 2502 29 1151
Mitchell Trubisky 29 2329 32 1052

Trubisky also finished 24th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average), while Foles was 28th and 29th respectively.


A Transformation Under Center  

Matt Nagy will begin his fourth season as Chicago’s head coach, after compiling a 28-20 record since his arrival in 2018. His tenure began with a 12-4 record but the Bears have now registered two consecutive 8-8 seasons. Nagy has decided to reclaim play-calling responsibilities after relinquishing those duties to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor last November. It will be critical for Nagy’s strategic approach to avoid any replication of the substandard production that occurred during the last two seasons. The Bears ranked 26th in total offense during 2020 (331.4 yards per game) and were just 29th in 2019 (296.8 yards per game).

It will also behoove Nagy to design an attack that capitalizes on the offseason investment in Justin Fields. Pace traded multiple picks for the opportunity to seize Fields with the 11th overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, and this selection was not made with the intention of placing Andy Dalton under center for an extended period. Fields accumulated 5,373 yards and 63 touchdowns through the air during 22 games at Ohio State (2019-2020), while leading the Big Ten in passing yards, and passing touchdowns during both of his seasons as a Buckeye. Fields completed 396 of his 579 passes (68.4%), averaged 10.8 air yards per attempt, and generated 867 yards/15 touchdowns on the ground.

But even though he can provide the Bears with dual-threat capabilities and exceptional athleticism, Nagy appears committed to deploying Dalton as the team’s Week 1 starter. Dalton will be entering his 11th season, after spearheading the Dallas offense for 11 games (nine starts) during 2020. He completed 216 of his 333 attempts while averaging just 3.4 completed air yards per attempt for the Cowboys.

His presence in the lineup should be temporary, as Fields’ superior talent will eventually usher him into the starting role. Chicago’s offense will benefit from his potential to generate yardage on the ground, along with his ability to launch passes with greater accuracy than his predecessors.  Field’s downfield capabilities will also help Mooney deliver on his big-play potential after his ability to gain separation went largely unrewarded in 2020.

Fields’ prospects of flourishing will increase if there is any improvement in the effectiveness of Chicago's offensive line. However, this remains an area of concern. Several moves transpired during the offseason in an effort to upgrade this unit, including Pace’s selection of Teven Jenkins in Round 2. However, Jenkins (back) is one of three projected starters who is currently contending with injuries (Germain Ifedi /hip flexor), (James Daniels/quad). Health issues already forced the Bears to shift responsibilities of their personnel last season, and that unwanted scenario is occurring once again. This has created uncertainty concerning the exact roles that will be assigned to the eventual starters, which is an unfavorable development for a unit that has been graded just 28th in PPF’s preseason rankings of offensive lines.


Competition For Targets

Mooney will also be functioning without the threat of significant competition for targets beyond unquestioned alpha Allen Robinsonwho has paced the Bears in target share on an annual basis since arriving in Chicago (25.4/27.2/22.1).

Robinson has also led the team in receiving yards (1,250/1,147/754), and air yards (1,454/1,702/1,141) during all three of those seasons. He also overcame the inherent hurdles of inadequate quarterback play to finish WR9 in scoring during 2020, while also placing third overall in targets (151/9.4 per game). fourth in both receptions (102/6.4 per game), and first downs (68), and eighth in yardage (1,250/78.1 per game). Robinson remains cemented as Chicago’s premiere receiving weapon, and only a lingering injury would keep him from finishing first in all major receiving categories this season.

But there are no other receiving weapons that should collect more opportunities than Mooney, which includes Chicago's tandem of tight ends. 34-year old Jimmy Graham paced the position in targets (76/4.8 per game), receptions (50/3.1 per game), and receiving yards (456/28.5 per game) during 2020 while leading the Bears in red zone targets (19), and touchdowns (8). Cole Kmet was second in targets (44/2.8 per game), receptions (28 1.8 per game), and yardage (243/15.2 per game).

Both tight ends finished with similar snap shares (Graham 59.5%/Kmet 55.6%), although Kmet's share soared beyond Graham's from Weeks 10-17 (87%/45.1%). Kmet should receive a larger percentage of snaps than Graham. But his usage will not prevent Mooney from attaining the team’s second-highest target total.

David Montgomery vaulted to RB4 in PPR scoring during 2020 and led all backs in point per game scoring from Weeks 12-17 (25.7). That ascension was fueled by his career-best 1,070 rushing yards (71.3 per game), which included the NFL’s third-highest yardage total during his final six matchups 598/99.7 per game). But Montgomery’s 68 targets (4.5 per game) nearly doubled his usage during 2019 (35/2.2 per game). It appeared that his involvement as a pass-catcher could decline once Tarik Cohen resurfaced from injury (ACL), as Cohen led Chicago in receptions during 2018 (71/4.4 per game) and was second in targets during 2019 (104/6.5 per game).

However, Cohen is still recovering, which has supplied Damien Williams with the opportunity to commandeer RB2 duties behind Montgomery. Williams established new career-highs in targets (37/3.4 per game), and receptions (30/2.7 per game) in 2019 before opting out last season. He is capable of siphoning opportunities from Montgomery but is not a candidate to commandeer massive target totals.

Mooney had already bypassed former second-round selection Anthony Miller on the depth chart last season, as Miller’s disappointing descent within the Bears' arsenal of weaponry included a decline in per-game averages from 2019 (5.3 targets/41 yards) to 2020 (4.8 targets/3.1 receptions/30.3 yards). Miller also tied for 13th among all receivers in touchdowns as a rookie (7), but only scored four times during his last two seasons combined. The steady disintegration of Miller’s role finally reached its conclusion with a trade to Houston, which leaves a cluster of unimposing receivers below Mooney on Chicago's reshaped depth chart.

Mooney’s Outlook

Mooney’s ability to create a cushion was wasted repeatedly in 2020, due to the inability of Trubisky and Foles to deliver accurate throws. But his efforts in gaining separation should be rewarded with greater frequency whether Dalton or Fields is guiding the offense. Mooney’s ability to deliver highly productive outings will also improve considerably whenever Fields is spearheading the attack.

The eventual infusion of Fields under center will boost the offensive unit’s proficiency, although it will also increase the Bears’ run play percentage. However, that should not prevent Mooney from surpassing last year's usage and output. He completed his rookie year as Chicago's WR2 and is not contending with an obstacle that will impede him from sustaining that role. This should result in numbers that place Mooney directly behind Robinson in each critical receiving category.

He should also refine his skills during his second season. This will blend with his expanded opportunities and improved play at quarterback to elevate his numbers to a level that surpasses the expectations of his ADP. 

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