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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.

Bucs WR-PR Jaelon Darden

Bucs WR-PR Jaelon Darden – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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

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.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

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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ScottC543
1 month ago

This guy’s film from college clearly showed elite talent (albeit against lesser talent), and all I hear are raves coming from OTAs and camp.

How did Darden last until the fourth round of the draft???

drdneast
Reply to  ScottC543
1 month ago

Good players do slip through the cracks and there have been numerous instances of late round picks becoming all pros or excellent players. See Scotty Miller, fifth round.The real test will come when live bulllets start flying. It’s one thing to make those difficult catches when you know thier is no harm coming to you, it’s quite another when you know the DB has ill intentions for you and plans to carry them out.

Eddie
Reply to  drdneast
1 month ago

Yes, real bullets and real vicious hitting. “everyone has a plan until they get hit”.

Naplesfan
1 month ago

I try not to get caught up in the hype over unproven players that happens every offseason and pre-season. It could well be that Darden will turn out to be a massive steal in the draft this year, and we can all certainly hope so, ditto with all our drafted rookies. But the reality is that it’s fairly uncommon for anyone drafted on Day 3 to become starters let alone stars. It obviously happens, but as a probability, it’s fairly low. As a fourth round pick, that’s the top of Day 3 and is obviously more likely to be successful… Read more »

TCB2W!
Reply to  Naplesfan
1 month ago

While I agree in general to your statement. He had 19 TD receptions (19!) in 9 games last year. Even against lesser competition, that is impressive.

SaskBucs
1 month ago

Absolutely crazy how good this team could be if things break right for them this season. The depth is incredible across most of the roster. I see 5 players that need to stay healthy (Brady,White,Wirfs,Smith,David) anyone else and I am not even breaking a sweat if they go down. What a time to be a Bucs fan.

TBChucky
1 month ago

I think even during his rookie season he’s the type of talent that they’ll manufacture plays for. Much like they do with AB, who he’ll probably replace next season. It’d be fun to see them both on the field together for a few plays. I can’t wait to see him in the Preseason running routes and returning kicks..

PatrioticChief
1 month ago

Rookies, even camp stars, rarely get on the field ahead of established starters in year one. I think the best case scenario (for Darden) is playing a relief role or another starter getting injured. It’s gonna be extremely hard to crack the lineup of AB/Evans/Brown.

Dman
1 month ago

Still scratching my head over what’s happened withTyler Johnson.

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