CHICAGO — DJ Moore was walking down his driveway in Charlotte, North Carolina, to retrieve a haul of packages when his phone rang. It was late in the afternoon on March 10, and the Carolina Panthers were calling to inform Moore he was being traded to the Chicago Bears in exchange for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft.
Having just signed a three-year extension in March 2022, the wide receiver didn’t anticipate being on the move. Despite a lack of stability at quarterback in Carolina, Moore was the model of consistency. His 5,201 receiving yards over five seasons rank fourth in Panthers history, and no receiver in Bears history has more.
Moore walked back toward his home and began thinking about what lay ahead. Chicago hasn’t been a great destination for receivers. In fact, this year is the 15th anniversary of when another former Carolina wideout, Muhsin Muhammad, said Chicago is where “receivers go to die.”
“I’m going to try to take it to a new standard,” Moore told ESPN in late September. “That’s my take on it.”
When he faces the Panthers on Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video), Moore is once again the top receiver on his team. And once again, he’s on a team with issues in the passing game as the Bears rank 24th with 190.6 passing yards per game.
Part of the problem is despite how good Moore has been, he’s underutilized. While his 735 receiving yards rank sixth in the league, and he’s tied for seventh with five touchdowns, he’s tied for 20th in targets with 62. It’s a problem that seemingly has a logical solution, one that has been identified by Bears coaches and players, but for various reasons, targeting Moore hasn’t been easy.
And it has been a problem for both starting QB Justin Fields, who has missed the past three games because of a dislocated right thumb and will also miss Thursday, and backup Tyson Bagent, who will start against the Panthers.
Moore’s 62 targets lead the Bears — tight end Cole Kmet is second with 50 — but Chicago has the sixth-lowest designed pass rate in the NFL with 32% of their throws going at or behind the line of scrimmage. And QB play continues to be a problem. The Bears were hoping Moore would help expedite the development of Fields’ passing efficiency, but Fields ranks 26th with a 37.7 QBR. Bagent’s QBR is 52.3, but he hasn’t played enough games to qualify for a league ranking.
“I am conscious of the fact DJ is our guy,” Bagent said Wednesday. “He’s our X factor, and I’ve got to do a good job of getting him the ball.
“Other than that, I’m playing the play, I’m going through the progressions, I’m doing the best that I possibly can in order to move the chains and be successful as an offense.”
Moore has seen double-digit targets once this season, with Fields at QB, and that led to a 230-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 40-20 win over the Washington Commanders, one of the Bears’ two wins. In the Bears’ other win, Week 7 over the Las Vegas Raiders with Bagent starting, Moore had nine targets and eight catches for 54 yards.
The 6-foot, 210-pound Moore has been targeted on 22% of his routes, which ranks 77th. When the ball does come his way, he makes it count. According to Next Gen Stats, Moore has 10.1 receptions above expectation, which is the second highest mark in the NFL.
“Get the ball to DJ, man,” Bears receiver Darnell Mooney said after the win over the Commanders. “Get the ball to DJ.”
EX-PANTHERS QUARTERBACK PJ Walker watched as his pass sailed nearly 70 yards through the air inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 23, 2022.
When the ball left Walker’s hand, it had a 16.9% completion probability. Given who he was throwing to, Walker liked his chances. Moore, who was double-covered, justified that confidence as he dove into the end zone to haul in the touchdown pass.
“He’s one of those guys that you’ve got to find out there on the football field,” said Walker, who now plays for the Browns. “If a play is called for him, and he’s partially covered, you can still give him an opportunity to go make that play.”
Bears quarterbacks might want to subscribe to that philosophy. Coverage issues have been mentioned after games this season to explain Moore’s low target rate.
Moore recorded 1,110 receiving yards from 2019 to ’21 in Carolina while catching passes from eight different quarterbacks. He had the same number of QBs throw him the ball during his standout career in Maryland, including four in 2017 when he set the school’s single-season record for receptions with 80.
Whether it was Walker, Cam Newton, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold or a handful of others, Moore prided himself on being consistent.
“I’m just always QB friendly and always in the right spot at the right time for them,” Moore said. “They know that no matter what, if the ball goes up, it’s either I’m going to catch it or nobody is going to catch it.”
Kyle Allen, who started his career with Moore in 2018, was most impressed by Moore’s feel for space on the field. Moore wasn’t “running lines on paper,” Allen said. When Allen went through his reads, Moore was feeling for space to get open when he shouldn’t have been able to.
In 2022, Moore accounted for 48.7% of the Panthers’ air yards, the highest air yard share in a season since 2016, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And since entering the league, he has gained the fifth-most yards among receivers after the catch over expected with 529.
“He was a blessing for me to have early in my career,” said Allen, currently a backup on the Bills. “If I didn’t know where to go with the ball, I’d just give him the ball and he’d find a way to catch it, break tackles, do something with it.”
MOORE DOESN’T OFTEN raise his voice or air frustrations, but the way his unit practiced during a rough few days for the offense in early August called for the soft-spoken leader to put his foot down.
“When he took the time to do that, everybody was listening,” wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. “They honed in to what he was saying, and I think we came out the next day and did a lot better than the previous day.”
But Moore hasn’t been all business. At a receivers dinner during joint preseason practices in Indianapolis, rookie Tyler Scott thought he was footing a $20,501.81 bill. Instead, Moore — who had arranged the prank — picked up the tab for a night of bonding with his teammates.
Moore has been a teacher even when that wasn’t the intention. During one of the Bears’ first OTA practices in the spring, cornerback Jaylon Jones was guarding Moore at the 2-yard line when the receiver ran a fade route. Jones didn’t even know the ball was coming before he looked over and saw Moore make a one-handed grab and quickly tap both feet in the back of the end zone.
Jones jogged to the sideline where he was met by cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke. This is the NFL, Hoke told Jones. You’re going to go against players like this, and sometimes he’s just going to win because he’s that talented.
Jones took it upon himself to study what he was doing that led to Moore’s easy completion. He learned Moore’s technique transcends lulling DBs to sleep with his releases and being patient while tracking the ball. Moore also studies a cornerback’s leverage and watches his feet.
“We just hope we keep giving him the ball,” Jones said. “We’ve got good receivers overall, but we need to keep feeding him, for sure.”
But it hasn’t always worked out that way. Moore was targeted twice by Fields in a season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers.
“The target thing is always a thing that people talk about,” coach Matt Eberflus said after the game. “It’s important for us to be able to get the ball to our best skill [players]. We have to do a better job there.”
Since the Week 5 win over Washington, Moore hasn’t had more than 55 yards receiving in a game. His targets have gradually decreased from nine in the win over the Raiders to six and five against the Chargers and Saints, respectively.
Bagent would be wise to look in Moore’s direction, especially on deep balls. Moore has the tenth-deepest route depth in the NFL (14.3) and has run 112 vertical routes (10th most), but he has been targeted only 19 times in those situations (9 catches). He has run 94 routes with at least 3 yards of separation at the time the quarterback threw the ball but been targeted on only 31 of those plays. One impediment is the Bears getting pressured at the fifth-highest rate in the league, which has led to the sixth-lowest air yards on average when pressured.
Still, Moore is the Bears’ top playmaker, and as Mooney said after the win over Washington, it might be time to get him the ball.
“He has the mindset of, like, give me the ball so I can make this work, and it’s like a domino effect with everybody,” Mooney said. “He has that confidence, and the reason why he has that confidence is because he works at it.
“Every time he gets the ball, he makes a play.”
ESPN Bills reporter Alaina Getzenberg contributed to this report.