We are officially in NFL purgatory season – the 2-3 weeks of time between the first training camp practice and the first preseason game of the year. Those few weeks can be a lot of fun, and they can also lead us down a path of conclusion-jumping. Go too far down that path without justification, and you can end up looking pretty dumb by season’s end.
That’s the battle I’m fighting with projecting Jaelon Darden’s impact this season – and beyond. Through several weeks of offseason OTAs, Darden was clearly one of the best players on the field. He diced up the unproven, young cornerbacks manning the Bucs secondary, showing a superior level of athleticism to everyone else on the field. Perhaps most impressively, Darden consistently made tough catches on off-target passes, showing a little more range as a receiver than expected.
Almost two weeks into training camp reps against better competition, and none of that has changed for Darden. If anything he’s been even more impressive as the opposition has increased in difficulty. During Monday’s practice, Darden viciously broke off Jamel Dean on a post pattern, fearlessly snagging a high throw in front of the closing safety.
Later in practice, Darden accelerated by Carlton Davis to catch a “game-winning” touchdown to cap a 2-minute drill for the starting offense. Despite tight coverage down the sideline, Darden subtly nudged by Davis and mashed a second gear as the ball was about to arrive. The rookie made the catch in stride as he crossed the goal line for a score.
It was the kind of touchdown you would have expected from Antonio Brown or Mike Evans, but instead it was Darden, in his fourth fully-padded NFL practice, beating one of the league’s top corners one-on-one. There has been more from the Bucs’ fourth-round pick, too – toe-tapping, full-extension sideline catches, diving grabs over the middle of the field and leaping snags out of mid-air on off-targets throws. Darden has lit up Bucs practices over the past 10 days, and much of his production has come against Tampa Bay’s top corners.
Having said all of that, it is still practice. There is so much more to learn about Darden before we will feel certain about what he will or won’t be in the NFL. Given the experience at the top of the Bucs receiving room, Darden is likely to receive ample playing time in the preseason. His receiving ability has been one of the top storylines from camp, but there will be a spotlight on his return skills as well. If Darden can provide a spark with the ball in his hands, the Bucs special teams could be a big secret weapon heading into the season.
Real Impact For Darden Could Come In 2022
Bucs WR Scotty Miller – Photo by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The return game may be where Darden has to make his mark early on. As impressive as he has been during camp, there is only so high he can move up the wide receiver depth chart – for now. It’s likely that Darden has already passed Tyler Johnson on the depth chart, although the two will play somewhat different roles in Bruce Arians’ offense. It will be tougher to surpass No. 4 receiver Scotty Miller by Week 1, but Darden has a more diverse skill set – if he’s ready for the jump in competition.
Barring injury, it may be difficult to get Darden past Miller’s 33-catch mark a year ago, but his impact could still be felt. Much like Miller, Darden will need to be a difference-maker despite limited targets, which is a lot easier when you have Chris Godwin, Evans and Brown to attract defensive attention. If Darden is mentally and technically dialed in, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to exploit less talented match-ups, even in 2021.
But the real prize in Darden could lie beyond this season. Godwin and Brown are free agents after the season, and there is a real possibility that neither return – although Godwin’s production will have to severely diminish for that to happen. Brown will be 34 next year, so it’s more likely he’s the one to depart.
Darden’s play as a rookie could significantly impact how the Bucs approach contract negotiations with the Pro Bowl duo, especially Brown. Arians has been open about how much Darden reminds him of Brown as a player, and the Bucs are not going to want to shell out money for a No. 3 receiver if they are paying Godwin over $16 million per year.
Even if Godwin returns, Darden will have a real chance to start next year in three-wide sets. The Bucs appear to see Miller and Johnson as more role-playing receivers, while Darden’s ceiling is higher. He’s the favorite to eventually replace Brown as the starting outside receiver opposite Evans, with Godwin remaining in the slot. Darden will need to catch the ball more consistently and learn to finish his routes more cleanly during his rookie year for that to happen. In other words, he needs to shed the rookie label as quickly as possible and truly become a veteran by season’s end.
It’s far too early to know what kind of player Darden will be in the NFL, but it’s already clear that Bucs are expecting big things. Perhaps we should have guessed that when they traded up in the fourth round to acquire the Mean Green pass-catcher a few months ago. Darden will face greater challenges in time, but it’s hard to be anything but thrilled with the kind of start he’s had to his Bucs career this offseason.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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