The Tampa Bay Buccaneers trimmed their roster to the regular-season limit of 53 on Tuesday, in the process releasing wide receiver Jaydon Mickens, who was later signed back to the practice squad. Mickens had served as the Buccaneers' primary punt and kickoff returner for the bulk of the 2020 season.
In essence that signaled that Jaelon Darden, a wide receiver drafted out of North Texas in the fourth round in April, had succeeded in nailing down those two jobs for the Buccaneers in 2021, at least to start the season. Sure enough, the Bucs put out their first game release for the season in advance of next Thursday's opener against the Dallas Cowboys, and Darden's name is listed first at both punt and kickoff return on the Week One depth chart.
It's not a shocking development after the rookie got most of the return reps in the last two preseason games, but it is a significant development. The Buccaneers drafted Darden in part due to what they believed he could do on special teams, but they've devoted picks to potential return men before, not often with much long-term impact. This time could be different.
Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong maybe hasn't seen quite as much of Darden as he would like before the games that count arrive – six combined returns in three preseason games plus whatever evidence the practice field offered – but he's seen enough to be confident in the rookie's future.
View pictures from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 media day.
"Wow, he's sudden. The speed, but sudden and the lateral quickness – he can make the first, the second, maybe even the third man miss. He does a really good job. He catches the ball well. … Great kid. Comes up and meets with me all the time. He's going to be a good returner."
Darden averaged 12.8 yards per return on four punts in the preseason despite not having one longer than 19 yards. That 19-yarder was probably his best moment, as he eyed a wall of Houston tacklers after fielding a punt and simply raced past them to get around the edge. That's too small of a sample size to prove anything, but a 12.8-yard average last year would have ranked second in the NFL among individuals. It would be a big upgrade from last season for Tampa Bay, in which Mickens, Kenjon Barner and Antonio Brown combined to give the Bucs a 5.9-yard punt return average.
The Bucs are also hoping that the shifty and speedy Darden can sprinkle in some huge plays in the return game, something they've been lacking for a long time. Tampa Bay last scored on a punt or kickoff return in 2010; every other team in the NFL has scored on a punt return since then, and all but three of them have also scored on a kickoff return.
Armstrong would have liked to have seen Darden break one in the preseason, of course, but he would also have liked if the rookie had faced some more diverse situations. All of Darden's reps were fairly straightforward catch-and-run situations, though he did manage it well when the opposing team was punting from across the 50 and trying to down the ball deep in Bucs territory. But Darden never faced a short punt bouncing towards him or a situation in which he needed to get some of his blockers out of the way so they weren't hit by the ball.
Armstrong can somewhat simulate those situations on the practice field but they won't teach Darden nearly as much as when he inevitably faces them live.
"You know, the classic rookie stuff which you're like, 'Okay, when's it coming? Because I know it's coming,'" said Armstrong. "You'd love to have seen that happen already. The things that you haven't seen is where he's had the ball off the first bounce and had to field it. Do I field this ball, this short punt, or do I take it off the second bounce? We really don't play with the ball off the second bounce. Just managing the game back there as a punt returner is where he's going to grow. And the only way to do that is to put him out there and he's got to go through it."
Having grabbed the return jobs, Darden is the only rookie who is listed first at any position on the Bucs' depth chart. However, he's not the only rookie who is going to be an asset on special teams. Armstrong also expects first-round outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to make an impact in that phase of the game, and Day Three inside linebackers K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard should be involved as well.
Tryon-Shoyinka also happened to look very promising in the edge-rush rotation during the preseason, but Head Coach Bruce Arians made it clear last week that the Bucs wouldn't be pulling him off special teams to save him for chasing quarterbacks. That's good for Armstrong, who wants to keep the rookie in his fold.
"Joe's looked good," said Armstrong. "He's looked really good. Obviously he's going to jump out. He's got great length. Punt protection's obviously where I always critique people at the most [and] he's done a nice job in the protections. Now, we're not getting a lot of rushes, twists, stunts and this, that and the other thing, but he's done a really good job for us. Everything you ask him to do. He's smart. I think he's going to be a good player.
"I know this: He shows up. He's the first guy out in coverage and it wasn't like he cheated or skipped out. He took care of his man, got rid of his man and then the kid can flat-out run. He's a first-round pick that's doing a nice job, but you wouldn't know he's a first-round pick when you talk to him. He's a humble kid."
Stuard was a standout special-teamer at the University of Houston, which factored heavily into the Bucs taking him with the final pick of the draft. That was his ticket to making it off the bubble and onto the 53-man roster, and now his development as an NFL special teams player will determine whether or not he's active on game days.
"He's smart. You've got to be smart," said Armstrong of Stuard. "Obviously instincts are a big part but you've got to be a smart football player. Because a lot of it is leading player, trailing player. If he goes here, I'm going here. So you have to know how to play off of each other. We've made certain calls. There's more to it then just go run and go hit. There's more to it in college, as well, but he's learning the scheme. There's some things that obviously he's going to have to learn on the run, but those guys, they're sharp. Both he and [K.J.] Britt come to meet with me all the time, so they're doing a good job."