Bears Senior Writer
The following is the third of nine position previews in advance of training camp.
Ascending star Darnell Mooney returns to lead a receiving corps that was bolstered during the offseason in both free agency and the draft.
The Bears added depth and competition by signing veteran free agents Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown and David Moore, and selecting Velus Jones Jr. in the third round of the draft.
Mooney has exceeded expectations since arriving in 2020 as a fifth-round pick from Tulane. Playing in 33 games with 23 starts, he has caught 142 passes for 1,686 yards and eight touchdowns. Last year the 5-11, 173-pounder recorded the 18th 1,000-yard receiving campaign in franchise history, and his 142 career receptions are the most by a Bears player in his first two NFL seasons.
Despite his immediate success, Mooney remains hungry entering his third year.
“That’s what I see when I see him,” Bears receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said during the offseason. “He’s always wanting to know what play it is, even when he’s not in the game. He’s kind of reciting what he has and what the other receivers have. He’s a hungry football player. He’s always here in the building, always up here looking at tape, asking questions, coming by my office asking questions about different things. He’s really hungry to be a really good football player.”
In addition to those intangibles, Mooney possesses the athletic traits to become an elite NFL receiver.
“I like his speed,” Tolbert said. “I like his suddenness. I like how tough he is. I saw him watching tape from before I got here and with the ball in his hands, some receivers get on the sideline and look to go out of bounds. He doesn’t. He’s a small, slight guy. He turns it up trying to get extra yards out of it. So, he has some toughness about him. That’s what I like about him.”
With the departure of Allen Robinson, the Bears will look to Pringle, St. Brown and Moore to help pick up some of the slack at the position.
Pringle signed with the Bears after spending his first four NFL seasons with the Chiefs. After missing his entire rookie season due to an injury he sustained in the preseason finale, Pringle appeared in 46 games with eight starts the past three seasons, catching 67 passes for 898 yards and seven touchdowns. He also averaged 26.6 yards with one TD on 37 kickoff returns.
Bears general manager Ryan Poles, who worked with the Chiefs personnel department when Pringle played for Kansas City, described the receiver as “a grinder who brings toughness and dependability” after signing him to a one-year contract.
With the Chiefs, the percentage of offensive snaps Pringle played nearly doubled each of the last two seasons, from 14 percent in 2019 to 27 percent in 2020 to 49 percent in 2021. The 6-1, 203-pounder made the most of his expanded role last year, establishing career highs with 42 catches, 568 yards and five TDs.
Pringle also appeared in nine postseason games with five starts for Kansas City, catching 18 passes for 121 yards and three TDs. All three scores came last year: two in a wild card win over the Steelers and one in a divisional victory over the Bills.
Pringle’s emergence in 2021 resulted in part from his determination and perseverance. It’s a mentality he’s possessed since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent from Kansas State.
St. Brown joined the Bears after spending his first four NFL seasons with the Packers. A 2018 sixth-round pick out of Notre Dame, he appeared in 37 games with 10 starts over three seasons—missing the entire 2019 campaign with an ankle injury—and caught 37 passes for 543 yards and one touchdown.
Last year, St. Brown played in 13 games with two starts, registering nine receptions for 98 yards. The 6-5, 214-pounder sustained a concussion last Dec. 12 in a win over the Bears at Lambeau Field.
With the Bears, St. Brown reunites with first-year offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who served as Packers quarterbacks coach the past three seasons and Green Bay’s passing game coordinator the last two years.
Moore signed with the Bears in April after participating in their voluntary minicamp on a tryout basis. He has appeared in 50 NFL games with 14 starts over five seasons with the Seahawks (2017-20), Broncos (2021) and Packers (2021), catching 78 passes for 1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns and averaging 8.8 yards on 21 punt returns.
The 6-0, 219-pounder was selected by Seattle in the seventh round of the 2017 draft out of East Central University, a Division II school in Ada, Okla. After appearing in just one game as a rookie, he played in 46 of a possible 48 contests with 14 starts over the next three seasons from 2018-20.
Last year, Moore participated in just three games, two with the Broncos and one with the Packers. He also spent parts of the season with the Panthers and Raiders.
Expectations are high for Jones, a promising rookie. In the draft the Bears viewed him as an explosive receiver and return specialist with a rare combination of size and speed that enables him to consistently gain yards after the catch.
Built more like a running back than a receiver, Jones ran a 4.31 in the 40 at the NFL Combine, the fourth fastest time among all participants and second among receivers.
In college, Jones appeared in 61 games with 21 starts over six seasons at USC (2016-19) and Tennessee (2020-21), catching 120 passes for 1,434 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also averaged 24.4 yards with two touchdowns on 122 kickoff returns and 15.1 yards on 18 punt returns.
Jones enjoyed a breakout 2021 campaign, more than doubling his career totals with 62 receptions for 807 yards and seven touchdowns. In addition, he was named the SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Year after averaging 27.3 yards with one TD on 23 kickoff returns and 15.1 yards on 18 punt returns.
“First thing you see is his speed,” Tolbert said during the offseason. “When you run 4.31, it’ll open up your eyes to a lot of things. But secondly, with the ball in his hands, he does a lot of things, makes a lot of explosive plays with the ball in his hands. And the last thing I would say is playing multiple positions. You can play him in the slot, put him outside, have him coming out of the backfield.
“He does a lot of different things to help our team, and he’s really good on special teams. A really good return guy—as a punt returner, kick returner—running down on kickoffs and making tackles, he does it all. He’s a well-rounded player.”
Other receivers competing for roster spots in training camp will be returnees Dazz Newsome, Isaiah Coulter and Nsimba Webster; veteran free-agent additions Chris Finke, Dante Pettis and Tajae Sharpe, and undrafted rookie Kevin Shaa.
Newsome was selected by the Bears in the sixth round of last year’s draft out of North Carolina. After recovering from a shoulder injury he sustained in the team’s first OTA practice, he spent the first 14 weeks of the season on the practice squad before making his NFL debut Dec. 20 against the Vikings. Starting Dec. 26 in Seattle, he recorded his first pro reception, turning a short pass into a 10-yard gain and a first down by breaking a tackle by eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner. Newsome also returned a punt 28 yards to set up a touchdown.
Coulter played 15 offensive snaps in three games with the Bears last season, while Webster was on the field for 59 plays on special teams—returning four punts for 13 yards—and one on offense.
Running back is arguably the Bears’ deepest position heading into training camp, featuring starter David Montgomery, backup Khalil Herbert and rookie sixth-round pick Trestan Ebner.
Former Bears punter/tight end Bob Parsons passed away last Friday at the age of 72. Selected by the Bears in the fifth round of the 1972 draft, Parsons played his entire 12-year NFL career in Chicago.
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Bears Senior Writer