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Should NY Jets pivot to Darnell Mooney in free agent WR market?

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By: Rivka Boord

Mooney’s recent performance could scare the New York Jets away

The New York Jets’ needs this offseason are quite concrete: three offensive linemen and a No. 2 receiver.

However, it appears increasingly likely that they may need to fill the receiver room by committee rather than acquiring one big star. Mike Evans is off the board after returning to Tampa Bay on a two-year, $52 million extension, which may also push Calvin Ridley’s price out of the Jets’ range. After that, the remaining free agent receivers are in the No. 3 range.

One interesting name in that category is Darnell Mooney. Mooney had a breakout sophomore campaign with the Bears but has fallen off since then. Still, he certainly has the name recognition that would make a non-Bears fan think he could be a legitimate No. 2.

Is that the case, though? Is Mooney worth the investment for the Jets?

Basic info

  • Age: 26.3
  • Height: 5-foot-11
  • Weight: 173 pounds
  • College: Tulane
  • Experience: 4 years (Drafted Round 5, Pick 173 overall by Chicago in 2020)
  • Teams: Bears (2020-present)
  • Previous contract: 4 years, $3.6 million (rookie deal)

Measurables

  • Data from 2020 Combine (via Mockdraftable)
  • Percentiles among all-time wide receiver prospects

  • Height: 5’10” (12th percentile)
  • Weight: 176 pounds (5th)
  • Arm length: 30⅞in (20th)
  • Hand size: 9⅝ (68th)
  • 40-yard dash: 4.38s (90th)
  • Vertical jump: 37in (70th)
  • Broad jump: 124in (70th)
  • Bench press: 9 reps (9th)

Mooney earned a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 7.03/10.

Role

In 2023, Mooney was third among Bears offensive players in targets (55), trailing D.J. Moore (132) and Cole Kmet (88) by a significant margin. He also placed third in receiving yardage (414) behind both players.

While Mooney’s snap count (75%) lagged far behind Moore’s (90%), it was only marginally lower than Kmet’s (77%). His target rate was simply much lower. In 15 games, Mooney saw just 3.7 targets per game (10.7% team target share), compared to Moore’s 7.8 per game (25.8%) and Kmet’s 5.2 (17.2%).

Mooney’s 75% snap share was his lowest since his rookie season (73%). He was at 88% and 83% in 2021-22. In 2022, Mooney was also the Bears’ third-most targeted pass-catcher, but that came in only 12 games; he averaged 4.8 targets per game, over 1 more per game than in 2023.

Over his last two seasons, Mooney’s role was greatly diminished from his breakout 2021 campaign. In 2021, he led the Bears with 134 targets, or 7.9 per game, 24.8% of the team’s total targets. His role has been cut into less than half.

Mooney profiles as a slot receiver, although his slot rate started low in his rookie season (20.5%) before increasing in each subsequent year. He played 65.4% of his snaps in the slot in 2023 but was at 43.6% in 2021.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here is a look at the distribution of Mooney’s route tree in 2023 based on the percentage of his routes run (all routes, not just targeted routes) that were classified as each route type.

Mooney’s preference for crossing routes and flat routes is a perfect match with Aaron Rodgers. Although his lesser usage on go routes doesn’t match Rodgers as well, it’s uncommon to have a slot receiver running more go routes than the league average.

2023 performance

Second consecutive down year

Mooney has never come close to repeating his 81-catch, 1,055-yard performance in 2021. After a fall down to earth in an injury-riddled 2022 season, Mooney continued his fugue in 2023 despite playing in 15 games. He posted just 31 catches for 414 yards and one touchdown.

Though it’s tempting to blame the situation solely on the Bears’ poor passing game, Moore’s 96-catch, 1,364-yard, 8-touchdown performance belies that narrative, as do Kmet’s 73 catches for 719 yards and six scores. Even if Justin Fields and Tyson Bagent chose their favorite targets, Mooney should have been able to garner a piece of the pie, but he didn’t.

Among 77 receivers with at least 55 targets, Mooney’s 0.89 yards per route run ranked 71st. His 7.5 yards per target tied for 52nd.

Uncharacteristic drops

From 2020-22, Mooney had seven drops vs. 182 catches for a 3.7% drop rate, significantly better than the 6.1% receiver average in 2023. He had never been worse than 4.7%. However, he suddenly forgot how to catch in 2023, dropping five balls for an ugly 13.9% rate. That was the worst rate among 77 qualified receivers.

Inaccurate passing is often associated with a high drop rate. Still, despite Fields’ 61.2% completion percentage, which ranked 34th out of 39 qualified quarterbacks (min. 200 dropbacks), his drop rate on passes was just 5.8%, the 13th-best. Four of Mooney’s five drops came on passes from Fields. That would seem to indicate that Mooney’s drops were his own fault rather than the result of inaccurate passes.

Miserable contested catches

No one would expect a 5-foot-11, 173-pound receiver to excel in contested catches. Mooney certainly does not. In 2023, he caught just 2 of 11 contested catches (18.2%), the third-lowest rate among 77 qualified receivers.

Putting this together with his hands issues, Mooney simply does not attack the ball in contested situations. He lets the ball come to him, resulting in drops, incompletions, and sometimes interceptions.

A lot of YAC

Mooney’s YAC suddenly improved to 6.0 per reception in 2023, tied for the sixth-best mark among receivers. Even though his average depth of target was the lowest of his career (11.3), it wasn’t that far off from his other seasons (11.8, 11.4, 12.6 from 2020-22). Still, 44.7% of his yardage came via YAC, the 13th-highest rate among 77 qualified receivers.

In part, this was because Mooney took many short targets. 32 of his 55 targets came either behind the line of scrimmage or between 0-9 yards downfield. Still, that’s not necessarily unusual for him; in 2021, 50% of his targets came fewer than 10 yards downfield.

Solid route-running

Watching Mooney’s 2023 performance, it’s evident that some of his fugue was promoted by quarterback play. Even though D.J. Moore excelled in the same offense, Mooney saw far fewer targets, making each bad throw more impactful on his overall performance.

There were many times when Mooney won his route, sometimes convincingly, only to have the ball overthrown or thrown late. Though he may have slowed down somewhat by looking back for the ball too early, the quarterback still could have done a better job. These are throws Rodgers would not miss.

In general, Mooney shows a good feel for route-running. He knows how to use the stem of a route to set up a defender and when to leverage himself into the defender vs. bending away from them.

Comparing 2023 performance to previous track record

Mooney’s career trajectory has gone from solid to good to poor to terrible in four seasons. The question remains: who is the real Darnell Mooney?

Yards per route run is often influenced heavily by overall passing efficiency. For example, Garrett Wilson’s 1.55 mark ranked 47th out of 77 qualifiers. Still, being that low, near the bottom of the league, is uncharacteristic for Mooney. He started at 1.20 in his rookie year, went up to 1.72 in 2021, then down to 1.58 in 2022. 0.89 is an outlier in that sense. Was it just Mooney being phased out of the offense? Was it legitimately poor performance? His drops certainly give a clue that part of it was his fault.

Still, Pro Football Focus saw Mooney as a mostly average receiver in 2023 — slightly below average in separation, average in catchpoint and YAC production (his drops canceled out by excellent YAC). Therefore, maybe his production wasn’t quite as far off from his prior norms as it appeared.

Mooney was a consistently surehanded receiver before 2023. His YAC performance suddenly jumped in 2023; he was at 4.5, 4.8, and 4.3 YAC per reception in his previous three seasons, all ranking in the middle of the pack for receivers. His yards per target was the second-worst of his career, as he was at 6.7, 7.9, and 8.5 from 2020-22.

For his career, Mooney has always been terrible with contested catches. He’s at 29.4% for his career. Other than an outlier 2022 campaign in which he caught 5 of 6 contested targets, he’s never been above 28.6% in his career, each time on at least 11 contested targets. That’s often the reality of a slightly-built receiver who plays primarily in the slot.

Overall, it seems that Mooney has never been a terribly efficient receiver, even in his breakout campaign in 2021. 7.9 yards per target is not anything to write home about. Still, he was generally reliable in catching the balls that he should have until an outlier 2023 season.

Durability

Mooney has played in 60 out of a possible 67 career games. 2022 was his main concerning season, as he missed the final five games of the season due to a torn ligament in his ankle. He missed two games in 2023.

It’s somewhat concerning that Mooney has missed 7 of 34 games over the past two seasons after playing his first 33 without incident.

The verdict

PFF projects a one-year, $9 million contract for Mooney. Spotrac lists his value at $10.4 million. If the number is that steep, the Jets should stay away. Tyler Boyd and Curtis Samuel are both slot receivers with a more recent track record of success and the same price point; Boyd is actually cheaper ($8.75 million projection), even if he’s older.

Still, considering Mooney’s back-to-back down seasons, perhaps his price comes down a bit. If the price is more in the $7-8 million range, Mooney might be worth a shot. After all, he’s two years removed from being the Bears’ No. 1 receiver out of the slot. He might not have been the world’s most efficient receiver, but his skill set seems to match Rodgers’, and he’s usually reliable with his hands.

At the $10 million range, though, Mooney could be an Allen Lazard-esque signing: paying for the name more than the production. The fact remains that his numbers have fallen off in recent seasons, and he’s coming off a year where drops were a huge problem. That’s not the kind of receiver you want to give No. 2 money.

I think Mooney’s number may be somewhat lower. He had only one strong season, had an injury-riddled 2022 campaign, and fell way behind Moore in the Bears’ offense in 2023. With many receivers in his skill range on the market, perhaps his price will be closer to what the Jets would want to give him. If so, it may well be worth kicking the tires on a player whose skill set is still largely there and who could fit Rodgers well.

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Originally posted on Jets XFactor