Bruce Arians wanted to add some speed on defense in the 2021 NFL Draft. He just happened to find some on offense, too.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the 129th-overall pick in the draft, a fourth-rounder, to select North Texas wide receiver Jaelon Darden , who has speed and quickness to burn. To make sure they didn't miss out on the 2020 Associated Press second-team All-American, the Buccaneers traded a sixth-round pick to Seattle to move up eight spots in the round.
The Bucs came into the third day of the draft with Darden targeted and made the trade to make sure he wasn't grabbed before their pick because they thought the shift receiver added a new element to their already loaded group of pass-catchers.
"We just thought it made a lot of sense for our team," said Director of Player Personnel John Spytek. People are probably going to make the Scotty Miller comparison because he's small and fast, but they're different. Scotty's more of a vertical guy where this kid can do a little bit of both and is probably a little quicker than Scotty. We just kind of added a dimension to our receiving group that we didn't really have right now.
View pictures of North Texas WR Jaelon Darden, who Tampa Bay selected in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Darden showed off his talents at his Pro Day, not only running a 4.46 40-yard dash but also putting up outstanding numbers in the three-cone drill (6.66 seconds) and the short shuttle (3.98 seconds). Those latter two results are an indication of what made Darden such a weapon for North Texas on short passes and sweeps, as well as in the return game.
However, Spytek says Darden was attractive to the Buccaneers for traits beyond being fast and quick.
"He's both of those, but I would say the best thing about him is he's a really natural football player," he said. "Sometimes you put on film on a player and say, 'Well he's fast but he doesn't really know how to play the game.' This kid is fast and he knows how to play the game. He plays like it makes sense to him. He can get the ball on the sideline with two or three guys around him and he just finds ways to get out of it because the game makes sense to him. We like that about him, too."
Added Darden: "[With] my route-running ability and then what I'm doing with the ball after the catch, I kind of feel like I'm different in a sense. I'm kind of just focused on ways I can get better in those categories to expand my game to the highest level possible."
Darden finished his career as the all-time leader for North Texas in receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) touchdown catches (38), capping his four-year tenure with 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2020. Listed at 5-9 and 174 pounds, he was motivated to reach those heights throughout his college career by frequent doubts about his ability to produce at his size.
"Oh, it got me to where I am today, coming from high school to going into college to now," said Darden. "It's kind of played a big part in that. I kind of keep that on my shoulder and it keeps me going, keeps me motivated. A lot of times working out with a lot of people, I'm still carrying that on my shoulder and still running it in my brain to help myself be able to become a better player each and every time I touch the field."
While the presence of Miller, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and others might limit Darden's snap count on offense early in his career, he could make a quick impact in the return game. Darden excelled on punt returns at North Texas, particularly early in his career before the team started focusing more on using him in the offense. He averaged 11.9 yards per return as a freshman and took one for a touchdown, then was good for 12.4 yards per return as a sophomore.
Darden may be able to unlock his return ability even more in the NFL, which has different rules regarding the coverage of punts.
"That would be the expectation, too, that he's going to get a chance to compete as a punt returner because he was very good at that in college," said Spytek. "You go back to his freshman year and he averaged 12 yards a return with a touchdown. And it's hard to return in the college game because they do those rugby-style kicks and all those guys run down the field early. So it's a totally different game but he's proven to be good there and I'm sure we'll give him a chance to compete for that job."