In the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Buccaneers traded up to pick No. 129 to snag one of the top playmakers on the board in North Texas wide receiver Jaelon Darden.
As a senior, Darden posted a whopping 74 catches, 1,190 yards, and 19 touchdowns, averaging 16.1 yards per catch. In his final collegiate game, Darden went out the right way, tallying eight receptions for 173 yards and four touchdowns. Not only did Darden light up the stat sheet, but he stole the show once attention turned toward his blazing speed and yards-after-catch ability.
The prototypical slot receiver is a piece of the puzzle that the Buccaneers' offense has lacked thus far under head coach Bruce Arians, but has now acquired in Darden. Arians instead opts to put bigger, more physical receivers in the slot such as Chris Godwin or even Mike Evans on occasion. In 2020, the 6-foot-1, 209 pound Chris Godwin played 55% of his reps from the slot, where he is dangerous thanks to his glue-like hands and crispy route running.
Although Darden specializes in the slot, his speed allows him to create separation when lined up outside, especially when running 9 (go) routes. With his 4.46 40 yard time and unbelievable 6.67 three-cone result (ranked in the 91st percentile), Darden is a speed demon with cutting agility that unlocks another dimension of Tampa Bay's offense.
Darden is the definition of a burner but can make you miss in the open field with quick feet and acceleration. The 5-foot-8, 174-pound receiver has insane balance, shaking defenders out of their shoes and picking up extra yards whenever he can. With a smaller frame, Darden relies on his quick burst, second gear, and inconceivable speed to outrun defenders, even in the tightest of windows. Every time a defender thinks they have Darden contained, he finds a way to escape and break free.
In a loaded wide receiver class, Darden was a day three value pick that could pay off in more than one phase of the game.
Darden may contribute as a special teamer, either gunning or returning kickoffs and punts. Darden would appear to be an upgrade over Jaydon Mickens as a returner, who struggled to make an impact in 2020.
Finding reps as a wide receiver will prove difficult for Darden in 2021, as he will be stuck behind Evans, Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, and 2020 fifth-round draft pick Tyler Johnson.
Still, Bruce Arians and Co. could find ways to get Darden in the game, such as getting him the ball in the short passing game, allowing him to show off his ability after the catch a few times a game.
In terms of his skill set translating to Sunday, there are some questions considering he played in the Conference USA. Although he is a speedster, he may have a tough time going against defensive backs that share his in-game speed, which was not matched by many cornerbacks that he went up against in college. Creating separation will be harder against better athletes, so Darden may have to alter his ways and not rely on just out-running every opponent he faces.
If you want to look way down the line, Darden could be a staple in a new-look offense post-Tom Brady, paired with second-round quarterback Kyle Trask.
Coming from Florida, one of Trask's favorite targets was slot receiver Kadarius Toney, who was drafted to the Giants 20th overall. Although they play the same position, Toney is much more elusive and relies on making his defenders miss rather than using his speed as Darden does. Due to their similarities, I could see Trask relying on Darden as one of his favorite targets a few years from now, especially on big downs.
To sum it up, Darden adds a new type of receiver to the roster that Tampa has not had yet, allowing the Super Bowl LV champions to expand their offense even further. Darden is a slot specialist but also adds value to a roster spot with his special team contributions. The speedy, shifty receiver should see some rotational reps in his first season as Arians tries to get rookies onto the field when possible. He did so with running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Johnson in 2020.
Whatever you do, keep your eye on Jaelon Darden to be a stud in Tampa Bay when his time finally comes.