On July 31, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepared for the start of training camp and began smoothing out the roster to reach the new 80-man limit, the team waived three players: undrafted rookie outside linebacker Nasir Player and wide receivers Jaydon Mickens and Spencer Schnell. That left the Buccaneers with 10 wideouts, a number they were comfortable with to share the reps in the upcoming practices.
Getting cut just before the start of camp would not seem like a good first step towards earning a spot on the 53-man regular-season roster. But circumstances change and new opportunities arrive, and the smart and hungry player knows to be ready for his next chance. And that's how, 27 days later, Mickens is being mentioned as a possibility for both the punt return job and the final spot in the receiving corps in Tampa.
"Every man's injury is another man's opportunity," said Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Mick came in last year and did a nice job. He's running faster, he's in great shape so he's in the competition for the return job and that fifth [or] sixth receiver job."
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Both Mickens and Schnell were eventually re-signed as injuries claimed undrafted rookie Travis Jonsen (waived/injured on August 10) and first-year player John Franklin (placed on injured reserve on August 23). In addition, fifth-round rookie Tyler Johnson has seen very little on-field action so far in camp due to a soft-tissue injury, so the reps rotation for the guys who run the most during practice was getting a little thin. Moreover, running back T.J. Logan also went down for the season with a knee injury, meaning the Bucs were suddenly down two prime return-man options following the loss of Franklin.
From being 81st in an 80-man pool to potentially winning a significant role for the regular season – Mickens just shrugs at the turn of events.
"Logistics in the business of the NFL handles those situations – I just stay ready," he said. "Talking to the coaches and the trainers, as soon as they called me back I knew what I was capable of. So, I was just ready to go as soon as they called me back."
Even if Mickens lands on the Bucs' receiving corps, there likely won't be too many targets to go around on an offense that features Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller, Justin Watson, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate, among others. But there is plenty of work to go around on special teams and, as the man who runs those units, Keith Armstrong, said on Wednesday, it's going to be difficult to rely on too many rookies and newcomers after a compressed offseason.
"I always was told they want a lot of vets out there," said Mickens. "There's going to be some young guys that are going to contribute and do what they need to do, but when it comes to the vets and knowing how to play the game and knowing how important it is without a hiccup or a mistake, it's going to be vital – especially for this football team."
For Mickens, the key is in the details. Kicking the football, running down the field in coverage, catching the ball and returning it – those all seem like simple actions but there is a whole lot a player has to know to execute his part of that process correctly. It only takes one player getting it wrong to create a disaster.
"At this level, you're taught that you're supposed to go full speed," said Mickens. "But, at this level, not only going full speed but you have to be sound – football has to be sound. I have to know I'm going and I'm fighting with this guy, but I have to know once that ball is caught, if I'm on the left side of the punt coverage, I need to finish on the left side because I have a right side that's taking care of their job. So, it's doing your job along with being a high-profile athlete that they expect you to be out there."
There's much more than that. Mickens described the differences between being a "contain" player and a "fill" player in kickoff coverage; how the way that a blocker tries to turn you tips you off to where the return is going; as a receiver knowing how to adjust when what looks like man coverage suddenly shifts to Cover Two. Mickens came into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Raiders in 2016 after a fantastic college career at Washington. He has spent times on practice squads in Oakland and Jacksonville, been to training camps with those teams and Carolina and drawn regular-season action with the Jags and Bucs. He held the punt return job in Jacksonville for a good portion of the 2017-18 seasons, averaging 8.9 yards per runback and taking one all the way to the house.
Mickens believes that experience gives him an edge over some players who are still learning the nuances of the game. Arians and the Bucs obviously appreciate that experience as well, especially in a job like punt returner where very good or very bad things can happen quickly.
"When you're back there, is the wind blowing?" said Mickens, ticking off some of the things he thinks about when waiting to field a kick. "How far is the punter going to kick the ball? Is it 45 net or is it 50 net? Is he a right-footed punter? The ball's going to fall to my left. Is he a left-footed punter? The ball's going to fall to my right. There are a lot of different things and variations you have to be accountable for. And then at the end of the day you're a football player."
On Thursday, the 5-11, 170-pound Mickens said that his skills have often been overlooked, particularly as a receiver. It's hard to imagine that the word of his waiver just before camp felt like anything to him but another example of that. But he stayed ready for another opportunity and it came quickly, and now it could pay off with a regular-season job. He couldn't do anything about being cut in July, but he can make the most of these days in August and September.
"What I can control is what I can control at the end of the day," he said. "Each day in training camp when we go out there, that next play is what I can control. Big play. Not dropping the ball. Running your precise routes. Catching every punt. Catching everything thrown my way. If I'm not getting the ball, I'm open. On special teams, they see me running down there hard, they see my leverage, my fits.
"It's up to me, being undrafted and being a guy that's had to fight every year, no matter [what]. If I was the guy that year, the next year I'm still fighting to get to the 53 or the 46 or whatever it is. They've got to just look at it and I've got to show up every day."