The Buccaneers knew what they were getting when they traded up to select Jaelon Darden in the fourth round of the NFL Draft: a shifty, quick, fast player who can add a dynamic element to both the receiving game and the kick return game.
Fast forward to September and not only has Darden beaten out the Bucs' former kick returner in Jaydon Mickens, he snagged the sixth receiver spot on the 53-man roster.
So far, everything is going to plan.
Darden is still growing as a receiver and has a long way to go when it comes to refining his game. Even with the learning curve, however, he still has a chance to make an impact on the team, which comes in the form of returning kicks.
But is he ready to take on the role as lead return man?
Physically, yes. It's hard to overlook Darden's physical traits when he's on the field. However, there is still a lot for him to learn and experience in the return game.
"He's sudden. The speed, but sudden and the lateral quickness – he can make the first, the second, maybe even the third man miss," special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong recently told reporters. "He does a really good job. He catches the ball well. You would have loved to see him manage some more situations. He's never had to make a 'Peter' call. We either caught it and returned it or fair caught it. He did a good job in plus-50. He had some plus-50 situations. You never really saw him catching it at the two. You know, the classic rookie stuff which you're like, 'Okay, when's it coming? Because I know it's coming.' You'd love to have seen that happen already. The things that you haven't seen is where he's had the ball off the first bounce and had to field it.
"Do I field this ball, this short punt, or do I take it off the second bounce? We really don't play with the ball off the second bounce. Just managing the game back there as a punt returner is where he's going to grow. And the only way to do that is to put him out there and he's got to go through it. But he's never had to go over and [yell], 'Peter, Peter?' and tell his two vice guys that are blocking for him to get off the gunner and get out of bounds. Those are the types of situations where if the ball hits them now it's a live ball. He hasn't had to do that yet. But in terms of his ability? Great kid. Comes up and meets with me all the time. He's going to be a good returner."
It takes a lot for a coaching staff to rely on a player who is learning the nuances and mental side of the game, but Darden has apparently done enough to earn Bruce Arians' and Armstrong's trust.
It's not like Mickens was chopped liver as a kick returner, either. Per Pro Football Focus, his 24.3-yard average was 11th-best among kick returners with at least 14 returns. Where he lacked was the punt return game. Mickens averaged just 6.2 yards per punt return, which was considered the 27th-best mark among players with at least 14 returns.
Will it work out? Only time will tell. But if you ask Arians, that's all Darden needs.
"He's steadily gotten better and better," Arians said recently. "He's learning the speed of this game in the kicking game. It's totally different than what he's used to. He's used to getting those Aussie kicks way down there and getting a head start. The more we can get him out there the better he's going to be, but I have all the confidence in the world in him. He's just growing as a player every day."
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