WRs Jaydon Mickens and Jaelon Darden – Photo courtesy of the Buccaneers
Amidst a Bucs wide receiver room that is loaded with talent, Jaydon Mickens knows his time in Tampa Bay could be coming to a close. The diminutive return man was impressive last season, with several important returns in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. But now Mickens is looking at an uphill climb to make the Bucs roster, largely due to the presence of rookie Jaelon Darden.
That hasn’t stopped Mickens from sharing as much insight as he can with the Bucs fourth round pick, especially when it comes to the return game. On Tuesday at OTAs, Mickens put Darden through an extensive overview of what to do in all kick return situations. What was most impressive about Mickens tutorial is that he began by showing Darden how to handle a ball rolling just in bounds on a kickoff.
Some of you may remember this play by Ty Montgomery a few years ago:
Mickens implored Darden to make sure he got out of bounds before grabbing the ball, assuring that the opponent would be flagged and the ball would advance to the 40-yard line. It’s a seldom used kick return loophole that Mickens clearly wanted to make sure Darden was aware of.
That lesson was just the beginning. Mickens went over how to track kickoffs to the outside, how to field the ball around the end zone and what to do when a kickoff rolls into the end zone. When Darden suggested trying to run back a ball rolling in the end zone, Mickens replied, “Helllll no! You got Tom Brady here, man!” The veteran explained to Darden that getting the Bucs set up at the 25-yard line instead of trying to be a hero was the correct strategy.
It was an awesome scene before practice began in earnest, as Mickens painstakingly went through every detail with the Bucs next returner. Darden may have needed the pointers in the return game, but at wide receiver he did just fine on his own. It was a highlight-reel practice for Darden, who shook off an early drop to make several outstanding plays. Two full-extension, fingertip, toe-tapping grabs on quick outs were among the finest plays Darden made, maximizing every inch of his 5-foot-9, 174-pound frame.
Later in practice, Darden ran a nasty in-breaking route, spinning around cornerback Nate Brooks in coverage and making an uncontested grab in the middle of the field. Darden’s ability to break his routes off without slowing down has made it incredibly difficult for this group of cornerbacks to shadow him. Nobody has come close to slowing Darden down through multiple practices this offseason, as the receiver has easily achieved separation on the outside and in the slot.
But it wasn’t just Darden standing out either. Mickens made several excellent grabs himself, also proving to be an impossible cover for the Bucs corners. Brooks couldn’t keep up with him on a quick slant, as Mickens snagged the ball over the middle with space to run. A few plays later, Mickens outraced a pair of defenders on a deep over route for a big gain.
It’s crazy to think that Mickens will open training camp as the Bucs’ seventh or eighth receiver, yet here we are. Darden’s activity on game day will be predicated on his return ability, but the fact that he’s already looked like one of the best players on the field in every practice is a tremendous early sign. Of course, the real sign of maturation will come against better competition during mandatory mini-camp next week. The North Texas product will be tested there like never before, providing a strong indication of just how ready Darden is for NFL action.
OTAs Notes And Observations
• Speaking of looking like one of the best players on the field, Giovani Bernard has torn up OTAs as expected. As a receiver out of the backfield, Bernard embarrassed Bucs rookie linebackers Grant Stuard and K.J. Britt a number of times on Tuesday. Coaches yelled their approval (“Good break, Gio!”) as Bernard snapped off back-to-back angle routes on Britt, leaving the rookie in the dust. The ball never hit the ground either, a welcome sight after over 15 drops from running backs a season ago.
• You could see offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich coaching up Bernard early on in the drills when it was just quarterbacks and running backs working on routes together. Bernard has taken to the offense quite well in the short amount of time he’s been at practice, and he’s often showed why he’s such threat out of the backfield.
“He obviously has run a bunch of them, and he knows how to get there,” Bruce Arians said after practice. “We’re trying to teach him some of our tricks also. He is a weapon, a really, really hard cover for linebackers and safeties on option routes and everything that he does on third down.”
• Bernard was the only running back at practice for the Bucs on Tuesday, as C.J. Prosise’s wife is having their baby, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn opted to work out with Tom Brady and other veterans. Arians added that he “hopes [Vaughn] makes a better decision tomorrow.” Undrafted free agent Troymaine Pope was not in attendance either.
• New linebacker Joe Jones is still absent from OTAs, after missing last week due to the birth of his child. “No, I haven’t heard whether that baby has come yet or not,” Arians said after practice. Jones is battling with Britt and Stuard for a roster spot as the fourth linebacker on the team.
• OLB Joe Tryon, CB Herb Miller and WR John Franklin were all present, but held out of practice.
• Tanner Hudson had a great day of practice, making several excellent catches and looking generally uncoverable. It wasn’t quite as strong of a day for Jerell Adams, who slowed up on a few routes inexplicably, didn’t get his head around on a hitch and failed to stay in bounds on a corner route to the sideline. Hudson still looks like the clear No. 4 tight end, although Codey McElroy had a nice day, too.
• It’s going to be a fierce battle for the CB5 job, and Miller may be winning it by not practicing. None of the other inexperienced cornerbacks impressed on Tuesday, with Dee Delaney and Nate Brooks getting beat often. Positive plays by the Bucs secondary were few and far between, especially with rookie mini-camp standout Cameron Kinley absent following his commencement speech at Navy this past weekend. Antonio Hamilton had a pass breakup that probably should have been an interception.
• The struggling secondary play made life easy for Kyle Trask and Ryan Griffin, who both threw the ball accurately and on time during the team periods. There were no interceptions, and the few errant passes that did fall to the ground looked to be the result of miscommunication more than inaccuracy. You can tell the difference in talent level between the likes of Darden and Mickens against the secondary in practice at the moment.
• Stuard has made a few plays underneath in coverage, but he struggled when tested down the field on Tuesday. Adams cooked him on a corner route catch, then McElroy beat him down the seam for a big catch late in practice. Stuard is quick to trigger underneath, but asking him to flip his hips and get depth creates issues.
• Not that it means anything during OTAs, but the Bucs’ starting offensive line on Tuesday appeared to be (from left-to-right) Nick Leverett, Donnell Stanley, Robert Hainsey, Sadarius Hutcherson, and Brad Seaton. Calvin Ashley rotated with Leverett at left tackle. Offensive line was the hardest position group to see from our vantage point, but neither Matt Matera nor I saw John Molchon at practice on Tuesday.
• Interesting note that probably very few care about: listed nose tackle Elijah Ponder worked with outside linebackers during most of practice. Ponder is an undersized nose tackle (6-3, 275) out of Cincinnati that may be trimming down to be an outside pass rusher in camp.