Tampa Bay only has one punter on its roster, Bradley Pinion. A veteran special teamer entering his third season as the Buccaneers' starter, Pinion is not required to attend the team's voluntary organized team activities this summer and was not there for the first OTA open to the media.
Despite the lack of a punting leg, other Buccaneers' special teamers have been able to put in work in that department since OTAs and rookie minicamp began earlier in May.
Particularly, eyes and ears have been fixated on rookie wide receiver Jaelon Darden, who will compete for the team's kickoff and punt returning roles throughout his first pro preseason.
"Darden does a hell of a job getting under the football and catching punts," Bucs special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said on Thursday. "It has only been off a JUGS machine right now, and they’re in shorts, so I don’t want to go into it too deep and send anybody to Canton or anything, but he does a really good job of catching the ball."
The Buccaneers' fourth-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, Darden put together a strong résumé as a punt returner during his college career at North Texas. He only returned kicks as a freshman, averaging 18.4 yards per attempt, but saw more usage on punts with 35 returns for 8.9 yards on average and a touchdown.
The 5-foot-8, 173-pound receiver proved to be electric with the ball in his hands with the Mean Green, scoring 38 touchdowns with a mean of 12.1 yards per catch across four seasons. It will take Darden time to carve out a role offensively in Tampa Bay behind the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and others at wide receiver, but after trading up to take him, the Buccaneers want to find a way to get the ball in Darden's hands immediately.
"You don’t hear it when it’s being caught," Armstrong explained. "[Darden has] got soft hands and he’s sudden when he catches the ball, so he has done a nice job.”
Now, just because the Bucs coveted Darden enough to move up for him does not mean he will be handed the job at either kick or punt returner. Last season, wide receiver Jaydon Mickens primarily held both roles, notching a solid 24.3 yards per kick return but disappointed on punts at 6.2 yards per return on average.
Only time will tell if Darden is capable of usurping one of not both spots from the incumbent starter, but that would appear to be the hope within the organization. Before training camp and the preseason begins, Darden will strategically be put in situations on the practice field to compete for the gigs, according to Armstrong.
"We’ll be in plus-50 punt. He’ll have to put his heels on the 10-yard line. That ball is coming down at the 8-[yardline], do you step back and fair catch that ball at the eight or do you let it hit the ground and roll in the endzone?" Armstrong asked hypothetically. "Those type of decisions have to be made by him ... Just as simple as a bad punt, the dud that hits the ground. What do you do? Do you play it off of the first bounce or do you play it off the second?
"It’ll take some time to develop him, but that’s everybody. We’ll hit enough situations that he should be prepared.”